JFK then, Obama now

On June 10, 1963, at American University, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech about the world that changed the world. On Nov. 22, 1963, America lost a historic man of presidential greatness in the first of three murders within five years that did incalculable damage to the world, the nation and the progressive ideal.

In 1963 a world leader, for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, offered a vision and charted a course to save the world from nuclear extermination. Kennedy did not count the number of missiles or drones he would launch. He issued a call to action to the world on behalf of the water we all drink, the air we all breathe and the children we all love who will live or die because of what grown-ups do.

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In five momentous years, from 1963 to 1968, America lost John Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The imprint they left was timeless. The legacy they left was precious. The dreams they left remain with us. The void they left has never been fully filled, though many in power quote their words and hang their pictures on their walls.

JFK reached presidential greatness. His call to control nuclear arms was carried toward triumph by others, including Ronald Reagan, who acknowledged his debt to Kennedy and spoke at the Berlin Wall as Kennedy spoke, who earned his own share of presidential greatness alongside Kennedy when the wall they both hated was crushed into the rubble of the past.

Kennedy fused eloquent words, visions of courage and plans of action. The power of his greatness was that he created outwardly mobile concentric circles of shared ambitions to reach for greatness that began with his inner circle in the White House, reached out to his allies in Congress, inspired Americans throughout the nation and lifted the spirits of men and women to courage and action throughout every corner of the world.

If Kennedy’s call for nuclear arms control was the modern father of Reagan’s triumphs with Mikhail Gorbachev, Kennedy’s championing of civil rights fathered Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, inspired Robert Kennedy’s stand with Cesar Chavez and the battle for justice for Hispanics, inspired aspirations of women that they may soon reach the sky with the election of a woman president and transformed lessons Kennedy learned from King into voting rights that remain under attack today from Texas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kennedy’s trumpet summoned the call for human rights that took Nelson Mandela and Václav Havel and Lech Walesa from prisons to the presidency in a battle that continues today, from the jobless in Detroit to victims of war crimes in Damascus, in political prisons from Tehran to Beijing and from Havana to Guantánamo.

JFK’s clarity, daring and courage led him to make mortal enemies, including hard-line communists, the military industrial complex, the CIA, generals who wanted to bomb Cuba during the missile crisis and large banks when he came to question the Federal Reserve Board.

Historians and God will ultimately judge how much of this progress in the linear march of history toward equality and justice for all is creditable to the presidency of Kennedy, but I believe JFK was the great heroic catalyst in the modern age of communication of ideas and aspirations for equality.

Kennedy was the younger generation within the Greatest Generation. President Obama, by a coincidence of the time of his birth that is his challenge to transcend, is the older generation within the so-called Me Generation.

Kennedy inspired people to come to Washington to change the world. Would Robert Kennedy and advisers Kenny O’Donnell and Ted Sorensen have left the White House while JFK was president to promote big banks, become television pundits, lobby against the first lady’s program and give paid speeches about Azerbaijan?

Perhaps this is the truest tale of JFK then and Obama now, which Obama has dwindling time to change. I doubt he will, but hope he does. 


Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at brentbbi@webtv.net.