Letter to the editor

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Last month, as part of the CSUN produced TV talk show, the host asked me about the similarities between this election and the Kennedy/Nixon vote in 1960.’ At the time, I was not able to think of many parallels, nor was I aware that others in the press had been making similar comparisons.’ When I was asked to write an essay putting the current election into historical perspective the opinion editor mentioned the same connection.

Was I missing something that the rest of the world finds obvious?

The study of the presidency is laden with assumptions about the events that shape the character and world view of the man who would be president. Personal histories offer window to the president’s behavior once in office. For example, Richard Nixon’s compulsive personality and rigid world view led political scientist David James Barber to predict that he would self-destruct in his second term.’ On the other hand, John Kennedy’s high self-esteem and rational mastery allowed for a more positive world view, characteristics that Barack Obama seems to share. Kennedy and Obama are also alike in age, good looks, and the ability to inspire with their speeches.’ They both attended Harvard and served in the U.S. Senate but here the similarities stop.

Kennedy was a white Irish-Catholic politician from Boston. Obama is an African-American from Hawaii.’ Kennedy was born to a wealthy family, went to the finest boarding and preparatory schools, and was groomed for national politics by his father. Obama lacked a father for most of his life, grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, attended local schools, and largely made his own career. Although these contrasts are striking, they pale in comparison to the generational differences that separate the two men.

Kennedy was born in 1917 and died in 1963; Obama was not born until 1961. Kennedy’s world was shaped by declining colonialism, rising nationalism, fascism, Nazism, and communism.’ World conflicts involving the U.S., Italy, Germany, Japan, France, Russia/USSR, and the British Empire spread to Africa, China, the South Pacific, and eventually to Korea, Indochina, South and Central America, the Caribbean and the Middle East. As a naval officer, Kennedy was directly involved in the horrors of WWII and indirectly witnessed the incendiary and nuclear bombing of entire cities, the Holocaust, the Gulag, and the Great Chinese Famine.’ It is understandable therefore that Kennedy was obsessed with bi-polar alignments and the political tools of propaganda, espionage, and arms development. Even his domestic policies were shaped by cold war demands.

or example, his initiatives toward space exploration were largely reduced to a moon race demonstrating U.S. technological superiority.’ Even Kennedy’s accommodations to the civil rights movement were pushed by a state department eager to show developing countries that the U.S. could live up to its democratic ideals.

To Barack Obama, Kennedy’s world is the one of his parents and grandparents. He was only nine when the ’60s ended and 14 when the last marines pulled out of Saigon. He was clearly inspired by the civil rights, free speech, and anti-war movements but probably as much by those that followed ‘- namely the women’s, ecological, and gay rights movements. More formative to Obama than the Cold War was the end of the Cold War.

ennedy could not have imagined glasnost and perestroika, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, liberation movements like solidarity, or the opening of China. Obama witnessed these and similar movements that lead to the fall of apartheid, the emancipation of hundreds of millions, and the rise of new nation states throughout Africa. Indeed, Obama moved to Chicago to get in on another American movement, one that helps grass-roots organizations revitalize inner city neighborhoods through self-help and participatory projects that build community. Obama’s world view is also shaped by proliferation of computers, communications technologies, and the rise of the internet. Whereas Kennedy saw a world locked down by ideological struggle, Obama sees one thrust open by technological and social advancement.

Dr. Martin Saiz, Chair
Department of Political Science