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History for Dummies (and Presidential Candidates!)

9:19 AM, May 22, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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On the New York Times op-ed page, Nathan Thrall and the very coolly named Jesse James Wilkins provide a highly public history lesson to longtime community organizer Barack Obama:

IN his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy expressed in two eloquent sentences, often invoked by Barack Obama, a policy that turned out to be one of his presidency's - indeed one of the cold war's - most consequential: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy's special assistant, called those sentences "the distinctive note" of the inaugural…

But Kennedy's one presidential meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, suggests that there are legitimate reasons to fear negotiating with one's adversaries. Although Kennedy was keenly aware of some of the risks of such meetings - his Harvard thesis was titled "Appeasement at Munich" - he embarked on a summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, a move that would be recorded as one of the more self-destructive American actions of the cold war, and one that contributed to the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age…

Kennedy's aides convinced the press at the time that behind closed doors the president was performing well, but American diplomats in attendance, including the ambassador to the Soviet Union, later said they were shocked that Kennedy had taken so much abuse. Paul Nitze, the assistant secretary of defense, said the meeting was "just a disaster." Khrushchev's aide, after the first day, said the American president seemed "very inexperienced, even immature." Khrushchev agreed, noting that the youthful Kennedy was "too intelligent and too weak." The Soviet leader left Vienna elated - and with a very low opinion of the leader of the free world.

If the Obama campaign finds itself stung by this bit of Grey Lady perfidy, it should look on the bright side. Authors Thrall and the very coolly named Wilkins didn't even bother pointing out Obama's historically ignorant gaffe that began all this Kennedy talk, the one where he suggested Kennedy and Khrushchev sat down for a chat during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In other words, they went easy on him.

There's still more good news for the Obama campaign to mine. If all this Hope/Change stuff doesn't work out for Obama, he could consider changing his campaign slogan to "Too Intelligent and Too Weak." Seems to fit rather well, no?