The Magazine

GWB & JFK

There's one thing Bush could learn from the president he most resembles.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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MANY PEOPLE HAVE NOTICED similarities between our dealings with Iraq today and with Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis. Castro and Saddam are volatile, dangerous tyrants we had hoped the locals would get rid of, with some help from their friends. But it didn't work out that way; the Bay of Pigs and the post-Gulf War Kurd and Shiite uprisings were two of the worst moments in modern American history. Free peoples underestimate the power of tyrants to squash their internal enemies like lice. From D-Day onward, the Allies breathlessly anticipated that Germany might do away with Hitler at any moment; in the event, Hitler did away with Germany. Saddam might be drawn to the same maneuver.

Both in Cuba and in Iraq, a dangerous dictator got hold of dangerous weapons--although in Cuba the weapons were Soviet, which made a big difference. It made the crisis more dangerous but more manageable, because Khrushchev in the end did not want to see mankind obliterated, and Saddam doesn't seem to care one way or the other. Both times we considered and rejected an immediate military strike. Both times we took our case to the United Nations--although in 1962 we did so after the U.S. Navy had already set up the Cuban blockade, because (according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., adviser and court historian to JFK) the administration "saw no hope of mustering enough votes in the U.N. to authorize action against Cuba in advance." In the Security Council, Kennedy's U.N. representative Adlai Stevenson answered the inevitable blowhards who claimed that the United States had (as usual) gone off half-cocked: "Were we to do nothing until the knife was sharpened? Were we to stand idly by until it was at our throats?"

Obviously we don't know how the Iraq story will turn out. But we do know that, however much the two crises resemble each other, the two American presidents resemble each other even more.

George W. Bush resembles many presidents, including (in some important ways) the two dominant ones of the 20th century, FDR and Reagan. But he also bears some strong, unexpected resemblances to a president Republicans don't especially like to talk about. The resemblances are worth considering, if only for the practical message. FDR and Reagan accomplished great things; they were also "mood changing" presidents--they cheered the nation up. JFK's accomplishments were modest--after all, he only had three years in which to work--but he was a mood changer also. Bush has done significant things, and may well accomplish great ones, but he has not been a mood changer--and he ought to be.

A poet works by wielding metaphor like a welding torch, connecting things. The two things don't need to be exactly similar for the metaphor to do its job; if it captures any sort of essential similarity, it can show us the world in a new way. Essayists writing history wield simile and metaphor also. The differences between the Kennedy and Bush presidencies are obvious (and Bush hasn't even gotten as far into his as Kennedy had at his death in November '63). It is hard for young people to grasp, but civil rights was once a pressing moral issue in this country, not just a catchall name for a certain type of cynical power grab; the civil rights issue grew steadily more important throughout Kennedy's term. The Cold War colored everything he did. And there were many other differences; T.H. White mentions casually in his 1961 book about the Kennedy-Nixon campaign that, at any rate as of 1959, "The schools were better than ever before."

But the similarities are close enough. Both Kennedy and Bush believed in economic growth at home, lower taxes, equal treatment for all citizens (which has become nearly, though not quite, as loaded an issue as it was then), federal aid to education, foreign aid, and a hard line against America's enemies. Two compassionate conservatives. And the resemblances go farther than that.

GWB AND JFK were both elected on narrow margins with nothing in the political bank, nothing like a mandate. (JFK's popular-vote margin was the smallest since 1884.) Neither was a born politician; neither was an ideologue; both grew up wealthy in decidedly over-achieving families, got Ivy League educations and (when all is said and done) wound up as president because of their fathers. As young men, neither seemed remotely cut out for the job. Both came out of nowhere to bear down on American politics like a speck in the rear-view mirror that suddenly turns out to be a 40-ton tractor-trailer right on top of you, with the driver cheerfully leaning on his horn. Both men were dismissed as political lightweights by their (seemingly) far more experienced and accomplished presidential opponents.