POLITICS: ANALYSIS

Obama praises idealism of JFK as he marks 50 years since assassination

Beleaguered president recalls idealism of Democratic icon on anniversary of killing 50 years ago

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 9:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 4:50pm
NYT

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Barack Obama placed a wreath at President John F. Kennedy's grave, marking 50 years since the assassination that helped shape the presidency and every man who has held the office since.

Obama was just two years old, living in Hawaii, when Kennedy was shot. He is the first president with no memory of the moment.

That time and distance have undoubtedly shaped how Obama views the legacy of Kennedy, a figure who would be mythologised in popular culture and turned into a Democratic icon by the time Obama came of age politically.

But that generational distance has not kept Obama from using parts of the Kennedy aura - youth, optimism and glamour - to his advantage.

Kennedy comparisons were central to the narrative of Obama's first bid for the White House, culminating in a pass-the-torch endorsement from the murdered president's daughter, Caroline. She declared that, for first time, she had found a candidate "who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them".

Nearly six years later, such comparisons are far less frequent, a fact that speaks to both America's brand of Kennedy nostalgia and Obama's sinking political position.

Leonard Steinhorn, a professor at American University in Washington, said that because his life and term in office were cut short, Kennedy represents "the glow of idealism and promise" in American politics and not the hard slog of governing.

At the moment, Obama is on the slog. The disastrous launch of the insurance marketplaces created by his health care law has rattled his administration.

His broken promise that all consumers could keep their existing insurance has many Americans looking at Obama in a different light. Polls show not only his approval rating at a new low, but his once-solid ratings of trustworthiness and honesty slipping too.

On Wednesday, Obama tried to refocus on the idealism and promise as he awarded Medals of Freedom. It is an honour created by Kennedy, but who was killed before he ever bestowed it.

Obama presented the medal to Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, Oprah Winfrey and former President Bill Clinton. "I hope we carry away from this a reminder of what JFK understood to be the essence of the American spirit - that it's represented here," he said.

Obama and Clinton then travelled to Arlington to lay a wreath at the eternal flame marking Kennedy's grave.

At a reception at the Smithsonian American History Museum, Obama said Kennedy looms large in the American imagination not just because of his youth and talent, but because he was "defiant in the face of impossible odds and, most of all, determined to make the world anew."

He added: "In his idealism, in his sober, square-jawed idealism, we are reminded that the power to change this country is ours."

In the 50 years since the JFK assassination, all presidents have had to forge their own relationships with the Kennedys.

But no one navigated the tricky waters of Kennedy nostalgia better than a Republican - Ronald Reagan - said Larry Sabato, a political scientist whose new book, The Kennedy Half-Century, explores his legacy.

Reagan so frequently quoted Kennedy to bolster his hard line on the Soviets and his push for tax cuts that Democrats started to complain. Reagan's solution was to raise money for the Kennedy Library, Sabato said.

"His charm offensive kept the Kennedys basically friendly on a personal level for eight years and beyond," Sabato said.

Video: John F. Kennedy's assassination