How the myth can unmaketh the next man

IF he is to carry the country, Barack Obama must embrace the centre.

IN 1961, at a banquet in California, defeated presidential candidate Richard Nixon spied Ted Sorensen, speechwriter and close adviser to the victorious John F. Kennedy. He wanted to congratulate Sorensen on the new president’s inaugural address, which had been widely acclaimed.

“Ted,” said Nixon, “there is one thing JFK said at his inauguration that I wish I had said.” “You mean that part about, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’?” Sorensen asked. “No,” replied Nixon. “I mean that part about ‘I hereby solemnly swear to uphold . . .’.”

Nixon’s joke has appeared many times in articles, books and collections of humorous presidential remarks. And it is sufficiently witty to redound to Nixon’s credit. Save for this. Nixon didn’t say it. Sorensen made it up.

Sorensen was one of the great mythmakers of the modern age. And as President Barack Obama wakes up on the morning after the night before, that is something he might care to remember. For if he does not, he may find himself shackled by Sorensen’s biggest myth.

On Sunday, Sorensen, the last of the Kennedy men, died. The last and one of the greatest. There was all he did for the president, , and there was something else. The Kennedy myth he helped create.

From the moment, late in November 1963 when the speechwriter ran out on to the South Lawn of the White House to give JFK some papers as he walked out to the helicopter ride that began his trip to Dallas, to the moment of his own death nearly half a century later, Sorensen dedicated his life to burnishing JFK’s reputation as a great president.

But he also, subtly and importantly, changed Kennedy so that the myth and the man became different things. He did not do this deliberately, for I think he was an honourable man; he may not even have done it consciously, but I think he did it nonetheless. Kennedy the myth was Sorensen’s ideal, a liberal hero, while Kennedy the man was not.

In his memoir Counselor, Sorensen recalls playing a game of touch football with the Kennedy brothers. It was a fake game, a photo op for a magazine, but the writer found himself sprawling in the mud in his one good “Senate suit”, victim of an unsportsmanlike shove from Bobby. “I took that as an indication of how he felt about me,” Sorensen said. Why the animosity? It was because Robert Kennedy distrusted the liberalism of the tall Nebraskan, a liberalism alien to the more conservative Kennedy family.

“I am not a liberal at all,” said JFK shortly after Sorensen joined him. “I’m not comfortable with those people.”

And liberals weren’t comfortable with him, with his dubious father or with his links to the communist-baiting Joe McCarthy. Sorensen became his emissary to the Left of the party, soothing its doubts, seeking out endorsements to counter the openly expressed hostility of that liberal icon Eleanor Roosevelt.

As JFK eyed and then won the presidency, this distance closed a little. But Kennedy never became a liberal. He was, strongly, a centrist. He was a Cold War warrior, a fiscal conservative, a tax cutter, a pragmatist, cautious and legalistic on civil liberties, a believer in American military strength and spreading freedom abroad through muscular diplomacy. Neither Kennedy’s greatest moment (the Cuban missile crisis) nor his worst (the Bay of Pigs fiasco) display him as a liberal.

Nor do his greatest words. Sorensen, the outstanding political speechwriter of the 20th century, is credited with writing Kennedy’s inaugural address. But in his book Ask Not, the historian Thurston Clarke demonstrates that the truth is more complicated.

Many of the phrases had been used by Kennedy before, and the speech’s animating idea, the call to make sacrifices, was Kennedy’s own. And the themes of the speech are not liberal ones.

It is a very Cold War inaugural address, tough and uncompromising. “Ask not what your country can do for you” is partly a refutation of welfare liberalism, and “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God” is a rejection of communism. When the torch is passed to a new generation, it is with the defence of freedom that the new generation is tasked.

It was inevitable that the memorable books of the Kennedy circle would be written by the great creative liberals such as Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger rather than by the Irish pols whom JFK also favoured (such as Kenny O’Donnell, who regarded the Peace Corps as a “kooky liberal idea” that made him sick).

But this has given recall of the John Kennedy years a certain slant, as have the Senate years of Ted Kennedy. But Ted, the liberal lion, was a different politician from his brother.

Why should Obama recall this now, as he surveys the mid-term results? Because, although 50 years have passed since his election, Kennedy was the last northern Democrat before Obama to win the presidency. JFK’s myth might hold him out as a liberal who won and whose example can be emulated, but the history of the man says something different.

It is Kennedy’s centrism that won in 1960 and the emotion of the mythical Kennedy that has doomed northern liberals since. And will doom Obama now, unless he moves from it and embraces the centre.

Be guided by Kennedy the myth rather than Kennedy the man and Obama too will find himself face down in the mud in his Senate suit, victim of an unsportsmanlike shove.

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