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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

We know but sometimes forget how much the word "Democrat" has changed. JFK-Sorensen eloquence was overrated at the time. (Theodore Sorensen was a top Kennedy adviser and speechwriter.) But its sheer patriotic aggressiveness is startling to modern weak-tea sensibilities. When JFK let himself go, as he did in his famous improvised perorations in West Berlin in the summer of '63--"There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future--let them come to Berlin! And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists--let them come to Berlin!"--he nearly blew the sides off his nuclear test ban negotiations with the Soviets, and had to back down the same afternoon and get with the program. (The West Berliners cheered him frantically: "The most overwhelming reception in his career," Sorensen wrote. Germans were all in favor of American toughness when their own personal hides were in danger.)

And both faced big challenges in office, and rose to the occasion. Neither arrived with any special plans. JFK floundered badly at the start; Bush held his own, but with no particular distinction. They were both transformed by direct, close-to-home (in Bush's case, at home) military challenges, in Cuba and downtown Manhattan.

In October '62, the United States uncovered a Soviet project to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. The administration decided on a naval blockade (which it called a "quarantine," because to "blockade" was an act of war); JFK announced that the Navy would turn back any ship carrying offensive weapons to Cuba, and demanded that Soviet missiles be removed and their launching sites torn down.

Many Europeans (especially intellectuals) were unenthusiastic about the American position. In Britain, "some questioned," Schlesinger wrote, "whether nuclear missiles really were in Cuba; maybe CIA was up to its old tricks. . . . Even Hugh Gaitskell [the prominent Labour politician] doubted the legality of the quarantine and wondered why Kennedy had not gone first to the United Nations." The Manchester Guardian explained that, if Khrushchev really had brought in nuclear missiles, he had "done so primarily to demonstrate to the U.S. and the world the meaning of American bases close to the Soviet frontier." The eminent British philosopher Bertrand Russell had already (some time before) thoughtfully pointed out that Kennedy and Khrushchev were "much more wicked than Hitler."

But luckily Khrushchev understood the issues much better than Western intellectuals did. In the end Soviet ships turned back, and the missiles were taken away.

GWB's Afghanistan and JFK's Cuba settled nothing for good. The Cold War continued for another generation beyond October '62. No one knows how long the war on terrorism will take. But in '01 as in '62, the world had been wondering (as it always seems to be . . .) whether America might not be "too liberal to fight." (That is a phrase the poet Robert Frost used in paraphrasing to JFK, liberally, some remarks with which Khrushchev had favored him. JFK exploded; he refused ever to speak to Frost again. To Kennedy, the insinuation that a liberal frame of mind might conduce to unsoldierly conduct was outrageous. Clearly in his case it was outrageous--to the extent we want to call him "liberal" at all.) Nothing was settled for good, but trading in "too liberal to fight" bon mots was suspended temporarily. And two presidencies snapped into focus, in October '62 and September '01, with two such decided clicks they were nearly audible.

Both men remained controversial, but were in a position to contemplate much bigger reelection victories than they had won at first. No one in his right mind ever called either of them a lightweight again.

JFK (AND BUSH SENIOR) were decorated veterans. W. is not. (Serious doubts were cast in Kennedy's own lifetime on the hero-value of his famous PT-109 exploit, but the fact remains that he was there and he fought, and that matters.) On the other hand evidence suggests that, in his private and family life, Bush is substantially the better man. In Kennedy's farewell address to the Massachusetts legislature in January '61--he had been elected congressman and then senator from Massachusetts--he asked four questions by which, he said, politicians should be judged: "Were we truly men of courage?" "Were we truly men of judgment?" "Were we truly men of integrity?" "Were we truly men of dedication?" He had courage and dedication, beyond question. On private judgment and personal integrity, Bush wins.

After decades of ugly revelations about Kennedy's private life, especially his maniac philandering, naturally his reputation has suffered--not only among the revolted but among the envious. And questions have been raised that have yet to be seriously addressed. Back then, the press made a collective decision to conceal the facts. Such a thing could never happen today. JFK could never be elected today. We have heard all about the public's right to know.

We have heard far less about the public's right not to know. The early '60s news industry suppressed facts to protect the president; in itself, that was wrong. But it also acted to protect the dignity of public life, and the wholesomeness--a word that barely even exists anymore--of the national atmosphere in which citizens labor and children grow up. Here its motives resembled Kennedy's own when he signed the nuclear test ban treaty to help protect his fellow citizens from inhaling radioactive poison. Mankind has always been X-rated, but newspapers have not always been. We need to understand more about the public's right to remain ignorant. All in all, the country hasn't gained much by the abolition of taste.

And when we reevaluate Kennedy we must factor in, also, his constant pain: the never-ending injections, treatments, check-ups, pills; how much sleep he needed, how one leg ended up a quarter-inch shorter than the other, how narrow a range of food he could tolerate, how low his energy really was, how rotten he often felt. But he soldiered on. How can we not admire him for that?

WHAT DO WE CONCLUDE? There are no brand new "emerging majorities," Democratic or Republican; that whole line of thought is nonsense. Public opinion has been amazingly consistent over half a century. What it thinks today strikingly resembles what it thought in the early 1960s. It wants a strong, assertive foreign policy--with constant reassurance that it is not warmongering or bullying. It wants a modest but effective nanny state at home. It believes in civil rights, equal opportunities, and all-around fairness, but only because they are right--not because America is a sinful nation with moral debts to work off. It wants lower taxes, but has a strange, puritan aversion to admitting it does. It holds fast to the dumb idea that you improve schools by spending more money on them. It views class-warfare, soak-the-rich schemes with amused contempt. It accepts that the United States will always have enemies--which is obvious, but was by no means clear to, say, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.

Of course there have been huge changes in American culture since JFK; but they do not reflect huge changes in the national will. Between JFK's America and ours stands the Revolution of the Intellectuals. JFK himself had nothing to do with it. He brought academics and intellectuals into his administration, but so had FDR; that was no revolution. The actual break came between the late '40s and mid-'60s, when intellectuals took over the universities. Elite universities used to be social as much as intellectual institutions, but now intellectuals were running them, and then--with their tony colleges and their burgeoning ed schools, journalism schools, law schools, graduate schools--the U.S. intelligentsia was suddenly, overbearingly all over American society, where previously it had been too shy even to call up and ask for a date. The consequences were vast, and we are still living through them.

Today the trial lawyers establishment has replaced organized labor as the reigning selfish threat to the public good--and it is vastly more arrogant, anti-democratic, unprincipled, and rapacious than the unions ever were. The schools decline inexorably. Young men are kicked out of collegiate athletics so that young women can be represented "proportionately." It is still permitted to discuss God on publicly funded sidewalks; there is still a state called Indiana--but these are anomalies. When I heard a cable-TV documentary praising "the countless thousands of young American men and women who were drafted during World War II," or words to the effect, I knew that our national reeducation must be nearly complete. But these are cultural, not political developments. The weakness of American conservatism has always been its obsession with political as opposed to cultural issues.

BUSH COULD BE a far more important figure than JFK; on 9/11 he found his voice and his issue. He found his message--but has yet to find his medium.

Contemplating JFK makes it clear that the Bush style has been second-rate. The best style in the world won't help if you are wrong on the issues. But if you are right and your style is wrong, you are failing to make the most of your good judgment and good fortune. You are falling below the level of events.

Presidential style (Kennedy style, Reagan style) sounds like a fluffy, trivial proposition. Most Americans can't even say the word "style" without patronizing it. But the prose style of a Jefferson or Lincoln or Churchill changed history. If prose style matters, why shouldn't style in general? Why should we discount visual style? A president speaks to the world in words and images. Memorable presidential style partly just has to do with politics. But it can raise a nation's morale too, and stiffen its backbone, and change its outlook. It can affect a nation's reputation abroad, profoundly. Kennedy was wildly popular with young women and foreign governments, and the two facts are intimately related. He was a phenomenon, people said, on the order of Cary Grant or (yes) Elvis Presley. (Can you believe it, Jacqueline Bouvier confided to a cousin when she was going out with the future president, he gets his hair done every day to ensure maximum fluffiness? Back then men did not act like that. John F. Kennedy was a hair-care pioneer.) In his 1961 book, White reported that "Kennedy loped into his cottage with his light, dancing step, as young and lithe as springtime." We tend to dismiss this sort of love-letter mush--but if we do, we miss the point. White was a smart and polished sophisticate. That JFK got such men as White to write such stuff as this is the most important datum that has come down to us about politics in 1960.

The Bush administration can't imitate JFK's (or anyone else's) style. It needs its own. But it can ponder the JFK style and what it accomplished. At a minimum, it helped convert disinterested political support into emotional admiration. We don't know what the admiration would have accomplished for Kennedy in the 1964 presidential election; but it wouldn't have hurt. Emotional admiration versus mere intellectual assent certainly didn't do FDR any harm in 1936, or Reagan in '84. Bush has got the thoughtful support; if he fails to convert it to emotional admiration, that is his own fault.

The Bush administration's style is too keyed-up and (at the same time) slightly dowdy. If I were the president's political adviser, there are some photos I'd want to see: the president in the White House not talking, bantering, or crisply commanding; just thinking. Bush unaccompanied, Bush à la carte, leaning back comfortably or on a solitary stroll, reflecting. JFK mainly surrounded himself with political minor leaguers--but made the public believe that sparks flew when they were all together. (And maybe they did fly.) Bush's best people are at least as formidable as Bundy, McNamara, Robert Kennedy, Walter Heller; but they rarely seem to add up. Put (say) Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Kass, and Cheney around a table, tell them to make like they are discussing something, take a photo. Is that so much to ask? We understand that the president is close to his brother and his parents; Americans like that. More Bush family photos are in order. Ari Fleischer is good, but carries too much of the Bush-to-the-public burden; he needs to be spelled some of the time by a glitzier performer.

Most important: Bush needs to find the right way--his own way--to address the public. In his speeches (anyway in the bits we see on the news), he is almost always fortissimo, staccato, full-blast. In Oval Office photo-ops he seems wound up; he looks uncomfortable in those slippery, formal armchairs. Even on the ranch in his blue jeans, he's nearly always at full boil. Vigor is good, being in command is important--but the nation needs quiet time, too. As matters stand, this president is impressive but exhausting, and slightly forbidding.

JFK invented the televised news conference, and mastered it. Obviously that is not Bush's medium. FDR invented the fireside chat, and used it brilliantly; Reagan was master of the eye-contact, heart-to-heart TV address. Bush has no glittering JFK wit, lacks FDR's powerful charm and Reagan's impossibly warm and compelling delivery. But he has a winning personality all the same. In some ways he is the most appealing presidential personality since Truman (or maybe FDR, or even TR). He is funny and plainspoken, earnest without being pompous, sentimental without being corny; and he has great natural dignity. He could change the nation's mood if he found his medium. It's likely to be something like a televised fireside chat to a small friendly audience; he sits in a comfortable chair, relaxes, says his piece--but listens thoughtfully, too, to an occasional comment or question. In any case, nothing inherited; this will be a new, Bushian form.

To prepare the nation for war, a president should not only exhort, he should teach. Imagine three speeches about history: At Harvard he explains Munich and appeasement and Churchill. (The cultural elite has talked down to him from the start; once in a while, let him talk down to it. The country would enjoy that.) At the Smithsonian Institution, he gives a family-history speech, about his father in the Second World War (and opens an exhibit of World War II airplanes; the Smithsonian owns plenty, but hates to display them). Then to Miami to discuss JFK and the Cuban missile crisis. Afterwards he can publish the speeches in a book and call it "Profiles in Courage (Cont.)." ("Profiles in Courage" was the collection of historical essays that was published under John Kennedy's name but was evidently, for the most part, other men's work.) Bush, unlike Kennedy, has never tried to pass himself off as something he is not. But a good president (bully pulpit and all) must teach, not just preach.

National mood matters, profoundly. Are Americans strong but defensive and jittery? Or strong, cool, and confident? The national mood could be far worse, and it could also be better. It's up to George W. Bush. This is his moment. In the long run this president could easily surpass JFK. In the meantime he could learn a lot from his glamorous, compassionate-conservative predecessor.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.