The Blog

From JFK to JFK

What John F. Kerry can learn from John F. Kennedy's 1960 Democratic convention acceptance speech.

12:00 AM, Jul 16, 2004 • By BILL WHALEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

TODAY MARKS THE FIFTH ANNIVERSARY of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s untimely death. One wonders if, by now, he would have formally entered politics (a might-have-been that both Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton probably don't like to mull over).

Still, this much seems certain: as the heir to Camelot, JFK Jr. would have been a compelling figure, front and center, at this year's Democratic National Convention. Instead, that role goes his uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who gets a prime-time address on the second night of the convention, plus numerous tributes amidst a sentimental journey that week around the Kennedy's ancestral stomping grounds.

The Kennedy cloud hangs heavy over this year's convention. Now, as then, a Catholic Massachusetts senator chose a Protestant southern senator--and former presidential rival--to help him in swing states. The presidential nominee has the same initials as the late president. In Boston, it won't be PT 109 on display--try Vietnam swift boats. Both Kerry and Edwards live in fashionable Georgetown townhouses, as did JFK in 1960. Democratic strategists hope that images of Edwards walking hand-in-hand with his young daughter and son also spark Kennedy flashbacks. By the way, the 4-year-old son's name is Jack.

SO MUCH FOR STYLE. What about substance? As he prepares for the most important speech of his life (and, according to news reports, writing it unaided, with pen and paper, in longhand), the current JFK would do well to revisit what the late president said in accepting his party's nomination 44 years and one day ago in Los Angeles. These passages in particular:

For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won--and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier--the frontier of the 1960s--a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils--a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.

John Kennedy used his convention speech to attach a "New Frontier" label to the challenges and opportunities of the new decade--his campaign's defining moniker. By contrast, at this point in the election John Kerry's campaign remains a themeless pudding: There's no core rationale in one sentence or less as to why he's running, and certainly no slogan that can go on a bumper sticker. His acceptance speech should address that problem. Presidential politics is short-attention-span theater. Voters need a slogan to go along with the product.

We know that it will not be easy to campaign against a man who has spoken or voted on every known side of every known issue.

Kennedy was masterful at portraying his opponent, Richard Nixon, as an unworthy heir to President Eisenhower: a man of mediocre ideas, a status-quo politician. Accusations of flip-flopping have dogged Kerry through this campaign. His acceptance speech needs to place President Bush on the defensive over consistency, and politely suggest that the man he seeks to unseat isn't Ronald Reagan's equal. (Note to Democrats: this is a job for a heavyweight nominee, not a political lightweight like Ron Reagan Jr.)

But I think the American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack. The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high--to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.

Kerry would do well to echo JFK's appeal for de-polarization--especially after the previous nights' diatribes by Ted Kennedy and Al Gore, which are likely to be rancorous. History backs up this point. Four years ago, a Texas governor was elected president on the promise of being "a uniter, not a divider." More recently, in California, an actor with zero days of office-holding was elected governor on the promise of being a nonpartisan problem-solver.

We must prove all over again whether this nation, or any nation so conceived, can long endure; whether our society, with its freedom of choice, its breadth of opportunity, its range of alternatives, can compete with the single-minded advance of the Communist system.

Replace "compete" with "defeat" and "Communist system" with "outlaw terrorists" and Kerry can rip-off this passage verbatim. After all, the nominee must convince his TV audience that his party is just as tough and committed to the global war on terrorism as Bush and the Republicans are. It's the most serious of all values debates in this election: Whether the Democrats would rather fight the war on terrorism in the courts than on the battlefield.

PERHAPS IT'S TIME that John Kerry considering going Hollywood--not sharing the stage with Whoopi, but stealing a page from the other JFK's playbook and borrowing some of that 1960 Los Angeles convention rhetoric.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics.