Clift: Obama’s Universal Appeal

When John F. Kennedy sought the presidency in 1960, Lyndon B. Johnson, the seasoned Senate leader who would become his running mate, looked down on the young upstart and complained he hadn't done anything to warrant such lofty ambition. Kennedy was an undistinguished senator, but he had been in the Senate for eight years after moving up from the House, where he was first elected in 1947. Imagine what LBJ would say about Barack Obama, who has barely three years in the Senate, one of which has been spent running for president.

The Senate is not an institution eager to accommodate people who want to make a fast start, and Obama has gained the endorsement of only two colleagues, Richard Durbin, the senior senator from his home state of Illinois, and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, a state no Democrat will carry. By contrast, Hillary Clinton, who's paid her dues on Capitol Hill, has 10 endorsements from Senate Democrats. We can only guess what earthy expression LBJ might employ to assess Obama's meager accomplishments in the Senate, but it's beside the point because that's not how the voters are sizing him up.

What Obama has is Kennedy's ability to inspire and to play the generation card. When Obama talks about "the fierce urgency of now" and warns against those counseling patience, he's dissing a return to the Clinton years, but he's also echoing JFK's Inaugural declaration, "The torch has passed to a new generation of Americans." How can we know whether Obama--now buoyed by his victory in Iowa--will prove comparable in substance and actual performance to the figure that lives on in our collective imagination? Bill Clinton, on the Charlie Rose show some weeks ago, said a vote for Obama is a "roll of the dice." It was characterized as a negative attack, but it's true.

In the Senate gallery, tourists hang over the balcony to catch a better view of the junior senator until the cops shoo them back. Obama represents the possibility of reclaiming the national unity America has lost, and his appeal transcends race and party. Republicans are more fearful of him than Hillary Clinton as the nominee because they don't know how to run against him any more than Hillary does. Portraying Obama as too liberal is an old saw that has lost its resonance. As for experience, it fell flat for Hillary in Iowa. Ted Sorensen, the venerable wordsmith who advised JFK, asks, "What experience? Just because she lived there? I have three boys who played hide and seek in the White House."

Sorensen has overcome age (he'll be 80 in May) and disability (he's lost much of his sight but not his vision) to campaign for Obama. It is the first time in more than 40 years that he has gotten this excited about a candidate. He recalls that Kennedy was not yet 40 years old when he began exploring the possibility of becoming president. Obama is 46. It's not how many years you live in the White House, or your contacts with foreign leaders, or even your personality, he says, that make a great president. "What matters is judgment." The first chapter of Sorensen's upcoming memoir is about the Cuban missile crisis and those 13 days in October of 1962 when the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear exchange. Kennedy broke with conventional thinking to negotiate with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the crisis. Soviet missiles were withdrawn after an exchange of personal letters. 

Sorensen's memoir is due out in May with the title "Counselor: A Life on the Edge of History." He recalls with wonder that JFK hired him, a Nebraska boy who had not gone to Harvard, who hadn't served in World War II, and who was untested by Washington standards. His admiration for Kennedy is undiminished by time, and what he sees in Obama is a similar willingness to have an open presidency, to consider new ideas, and to break with Washington groupthink. "I don't want this book to be a partisan screed, but I do reflect on what happened to the Kennedy legacy and why I'm taking part in this campaign despite age and disability." Sorensen believes that electing Obama would represent such profound change in the image America presents to the world that it would help regain much of the ground lost these last seven years.  

Unaccustomed to writing in the first person and struggling with his diminished sight, the result of a stroke, Sorensen took almost six years to complete the book. He promises a fuller account of familiar events, some new correspondence from Jackie Kennedy, and perhaps more light on the widely held belief that he wrote Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Profiles of Courage." He jokes that if there's another book in him, it would be titled, "I'm Not the Author of 'Profiles of Courage,' But If I Were, This Is How I Would Have Gone About It." For now, he's settled into a familiar role as counselor to another young upstart whose sense of possibility rekindles a time long past but never forgotten.

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