The continuing Kennedy legacy in US politics

Time and again it can be seen that candidates who successfully play the Kennedy card in elections, even if it is only superficially, tend to benefit

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What is it to be 'Kennedyesque'?
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Dr. James Boys
On 28 November 2012 09:57

Last Thursday saw the annual American holiday of Thanksgiving; a time for Americans to come together to celebrate notions of family and to give thanks for their blessings. The holiday has its roots deep in American history and has obvious overtones with what Brits would consider a Harvest Festival; coming at a time after the harvest and before the chill of winter sets in. Yet the specific date of this year’s festivities also has historic overtones of a more sombre note: November 22nd.

It is a date that may mean less and less to a younger generation, but to anyone of a certain age, the date will continue to resonate since it entered the collective psyche in 1963 with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Since that fateful day the Kennedy name and family has seen a steady stream of highs and lows, and fate, it seems, is not yet done with the family.

This was demonstrated on November 6th, when a new generation of Kennedys embarked on the latest quest for power in Washington, as Robert Kennedy’s grandson took his place in the House of Representatives.

His success is testimony to the enduring legacy of the Kennedy name, but also an indication of what it takes to win in American politics. Decades after his assassination, John F. Kennedy’s legacy remains a potent force in American political life. Indeed, politicians from both sides of the political aisle have adopted the image of the late president, as aspiring candidates continue to utilise JFK’s imagery and mannerisms in an attempt to produce an echo through time.

A whole spectrum of candidates has attempted to gain office in the reflected glory of JFK, as Republicans and Democrats have manipulated their image to fit the Kennedy mould, or else have sought to redefine the Kennedy legacy to suit their own political ambitions.

In many ways the 1960 Kennedy campaign for the presidency become the blueprint for modern political efforts; the focus upon an individual rather than the party; the focus upon image rather than substance; the utilisation of mass media advertising and simplistic slogans.

For better or for worse, Kennedy introduced the modern political era, with its focus on appearance at the expense of policy. Before him, candidates were conservative in appearance, mature in years and purposefully dour. After Kennedy, successful candidates needed to be attractive, youthful, athletic, charismatic, and energetic.

In the decades that have passed since his time in office, JFK has become accessible to politicians of all ages and ideologies; practically any candidate can find some element of Kennedy’s legacy that could be interpreted to endorse his or her candidacy.

On the 1980 campaign trail, Governor Reagan repeatedly drew on Kennedy’s memory and cited Kennedy on 133 occasions during his first term. Those who protested Reagan’s invocations failed to appreciate that the substance of Kennedy no longer existed, that his emotional appeal could now be drawn upon from both sides of the political spectrum. In the election of 1984, President Reagan, Senator Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, and Geraldine Ferraro all claimed to be the true embodiment of the Kennedy legacy, an indication of how universal the Kennedy legacy has become.

When Bill Clinton ran for the presidency in 1992 he put his 1963 meeting with JFK at the heart of his campaign imagery to convey the sentiment that a torch had quite literally been passed from one generation to another. Clinton was happy to exploit JFK’s memory as long as it served his campaign for the White House. As his campaign progressed he adopted a speaking style that could be described as Kennedyesque and on the dawn of his inauguration, he visited the president’s gravesite at Arlington.

Once in office he restored the Resolute Desk to the Oval Office and sought to replicate Kennedy’s mannerisms in his press conferences. Despite the best efforts of Bill Clinton to embody the Kennedy legacy for a new generation, there would always be those who dreamed of a restoration of the Kennedy presidency. As long as John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. was alive Americans could cling to the not-impossible dream that they would awaken one morning to find JFK back in the White House.

When JFK Jr. died in 1999, few were aware that the increasingly unlikely dream of ‘JFK’ returning to the White House was still feasible, in the form of Senator John Forbes Kerry.

As a teenager Kerry had moved in the same circles as the president and colour photographs exist of them sailing together. Incredibly, however, these images were singularly under-utilised. Rather than highlighting his initials and experience with the president in the summer of 1963, Kerry instead emulated Al Gore’s approach to victory. Choosing to adopt a self-righteous approach and seeking intellectual independence rather than victory, Kerry lost the opportunity to emulate Clinton’s success and followed Gore to electoral disaster.

When considering Kerry’s narrow margin of defeat in the crucial Ohio election, such symbolism may have made a difference. Images of Kennedy sailing off Hyannis Port became synonymous with his time in office. By the time Kerry ran for office his opponents successfully lampooned Kerry’s passion for water sports as being out of touch with mainstream values.

It is fascinating to consider Mitt Romney’s campaign in this light. Like Kennedy, Romney was fabulously wealthy, had a powerful father, a large family, came from a religious minority and held political office in Massachusetts. Yet, instead of being able to replicate the Kennedy model of turning these elements to his advantages, Romney, like Kerry, appeared burdened by them and singularly failed to project a sense of being Kennedyesque.

His wealth, demeanour, and approach to politics appeared to separate him from the electorate rather than bind him to a wider narrative of success and ambition and the embodiment of the American Dream. Time and again it can be seen that candidates who successfully play the Kennedy card in elections, even if it is only superficially, tend to benefit.

It would be wrong to blame John F. Kennedy for the steady stream of imitators that have followed in his wake. Nor does it seem particularly instructive to berate those who have sought to emulate JFK, since they were simply following a winning formula. However, a key element of Kennedy’s appeal was his originality. At no point did he seek to emulate a presidential predecessor. Quoting Pericles, Kennedy stressed on the eve of his presidency, “we do not imitate-for we are a model to others.”

The very term, Kennedyesque, is therefore a contradiction, conveying a comparison with the past, while implying a lack of originality. As can be demonstrated by those who pursue the Kennedy mantle, none can succeed when they merely imitate and those who refuse to be liberated from the past risk being tarnished by it. 

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

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