A Comparison with Leaders in the 21st Century

By Marc Chavannes

It was in the days before the cellphone. Somehow the news percolated into our science class at high school. President Kennedy had been fatally shot. We were pretty well versed in the ballistics of William Tell’s experiment with the apple, but this morning doom descended – with no other than a vertical path.Foreign leaders don’t mean much to school kids, but on that morning I realized JFK was different. With Jackie, Caroline and John-John the American near-royal family was alive in my perception of the world. The JFK mystique, lovingly dubbed Camelot, was a source of inspiration I turned out to share with millions around the globe.Profiles in courage, the 1955 clarion call to Americans of all denominations and backgrounds, was one of the first non-fiction pocketbooks I possessed. The cover with that Mount Rushmore like portrait of the young Massachusetts senator appealed to my interest in noble leadership – often to be flattened by realities unforeseen.The comparison with Barack Obama is hard to resist. Kennedy did not live to truly disappoint his voters. Had he met the days of Fox and the Tea Party his dalliances with ladies of diverse reputation would have made JFK a permanent and lasting punching bag, relegating Bill Clinton to the junior league. Obama so far remains pretty rumor free in this field.On the war front the current president would certainly best John Kennedy, had he escaped his attacker(s) on November 22, 1963. The Vietnam quagmire is on a disaster par with the Iraq War initiated by George W. Bush. The Kennedy administration sucked the US into the Vietnam War, whereas Obama painfully disentangled his country from the unwise adventure his predecessor left.Yet, JFK died sufficiently early to be spared the massive disappointment Obama has to live through in his second term. Both initially offered hope and the notion of rational governance, with a tinge of national and bipartisan generosity. How unbearable we will never know whether Kennedy would have had a defter hand in navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Congressional politics. Maybe not, given Johnson’s contrasting knack at it.One of JFK’s most loyal servants definitely beats his mental successors. Robert McNamara, the steely intellectual and technocrat who led America into the Vietnam War died at 93 only four years ago, having comtemplated and admitted his mistakes in The Fog of War and other documentary evidence. If anything that was a profile in courage, a sign of analytical wisdom Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney still have to begin developing.McNamara did Camelot’s after sales service. A tribute to JFK’s possible greatness.

Marc Chavannes is journalist, columnist and former correspondent in Washington D.C. for NRC Handelsblad.