Ted Widmer — one of the most insightful historians of early American political history and Director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation — has written a piece that whether one agrees or not with it provides much rich detail on key points of comparison between JFK and Barack Obama.
Widmer adds yet another voice in the experience vs. gut debate that Michael Schiffer parses below from a different political vantage point.
I particularly like this segment from his article “Ask Not!“:
In an editorial supporting Obama, the Boston Globe called attention to his “intuitive sense of the wider world.”
But “intuition” would have seemed a silly quality to JFK, a realist even among the realists of his day. He and the other veterans he had served with were tired of inflated promises and wanted a world that would live up to the sacrifice they had already made for it.
Like Kennedy, Obama certainly has a capacity to learn, and learn quickly. But there are qualities that cannot be gleaned from briefing books, even by the quickest study — independence of judgment, calm determination, and the deep knowledge of all possibilities that comes from years of experience in the trenches.
To his credit, Obama has not personally cited intuition as a reason to vote for him, but the campaign profited enormously from the Globe endorsement, and has tolerated a certain vagueness about his background and intentions that now needs to be clarified.
In fact, no modern politician has trafficked more in “intuition” than President Bush, who trumpeted his “instincts” to an incredulous Joe Biden as his justification for invading Iraq, and famously claimed to see into the soul of Vladimir Putin.
To run entirely on intuition and the negation of experience can work, and did in 2000. But to do so while wearing the deeply realist mantle of John F. Kennedy is to spin a garment of such fine cloth that it is completely invisible.
Senator Obama’s most fervent supporters will not strongly embrace Widmer’s article or perspective, but I think it’s important to read such treatments and assess them on their merits.
Along the lines of Widmer’s commentary, many forget that not only was JFK a tough-minded realist deep down (though I think he had a Wilsonian shell), he was part of the tradition of hawkish, pro-military Democrats. In his era and earlier, Republicans were mostly doves.
I’m pretty much past this debate now myself, despite the minor role TWN had in raising the issue of chaired subcommittee hearings — but I do think that Barack Obama’s team should deal with the experience question by offering solid, compelling proposals on how he would prioritize various national security concerns and get our foreign policy portfolio on an upward vector in a way that avoids silver bullet fantasies and the misplaced belief that America can just easily bounce back to its former self.
Tomorrow’s Iowa Caucuses will be fascinating to watch and absorb — though many keep emailing me expressing real surprise that I’m taking Iowa so seriously.
As much as I find myself pulled to Hillary Clinton because of her experience, depth, and intimidating level of knowledge on a wide swath of issues — I worry about incrementalism. As much as I am pulled to Obama by his notions of hope and a new era of principled American engagement in the world — I worry about serious missteps when he is the decider. And since I think the world works through gravity and interests, not hope and sentimentalism — which reflects a significant portion of Senator Obama’s schtick — my enthusiasm is tempered.
I am drawn to Edwards because he takes economics seriously — and it is the economic health of the nation and world which will play the largest role in determining the outer bounds of hope and the reality of cynically-fashioned limits. I’m drawn to Biden and Dodd — and I really wish they were in the forefront. I could live with Bill Richardson. McCain has my respect for fighting torture and bucking his party on immigration. The rest don’t make my list — at least not yet.
Wait — yes, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. In an alternate universe, the world might be just very different if under the stewardship of these two men, either of them. I wish we could try it, but it’s not going to happen.
And then there was Hagel. Had he been running now, I think he’d be in the lead on the Republican side. Bummer!
More later. Thanks for the excellent blog comments from everyone.
— Steve Clemons