Peggy Noonan: Is Kerry Trying to Look and Sound Like JFK?





Peggy Noonan, in the WSJ (March 4, 2004):

Mr. Kerry seems to me not a man of deep belief but of a certain amount of sentiment and calculation. One has the sense he is a liberal Democrat because of the time and place in which he was born, that he inhaled a worldview as opposed to struggling through to one.

I have been wondering how much of Mr. Kerry's career is an essentially unreflective meditation upon the life of John F. Kennedy. Or to put it more directly, how much of his professional life has been a case of JFK disease.

The murdered president dominated the imaginations of more than a generation of Democratic politicians, and continues as their most formative role model. President Clinton had a famous JFK complex. No one who was there will ever forget the moment at the 1992 Democratic Convention when the famous picture of teenage Bill Clinton pushing himself forward to reach out to shake hands with President Kennedy flashed across the screens that loomed over the convention floor. I was there in Madison Square Garden, and the impact on the crowd was electric, as if Leonardo's painting had come alive and they were actually seeing God touch Adam.

Gary Hart in 1984 took JFK disease to the point of physically imitating Kennedy on the campaign trail, shoving his hands distractedly in and out of the pockets of his suit jacket, tugging at his hair (actually this was more like Bobby Kennedy). I saw Mr. Hart do this with my own eyes the night he won New Hampshire. I was a young writer at CBS, working on Dan Rather's copy. I thought Mr. Hart attractive and his imitation suggestive of deep weirdness. It turned out he did a fabulous verbal imitation of Teddy too.

Sen. Kerry has had his JFK moments too. The other day I watched a clip of Mr. Kerry's famous testimony to Congress on Vietnam 30 years ago. Have you ever heard it? It was a total JFK impersonation--"hoff" for half, etc. In the pictures that exist of Lt. Kerry in Vietnam he seems startlingly similar in pose, squint and physical attitude to pictures of John Kennedy with his crew in World War II. PT boats, Swift boats;"Mahs-CHEW-sitts," the initials JFK . . .

If you saw a generation of Republican candidates doing a physical imitation of Ronald Reagan or George Bush the elder, would you find it weird? I think you would. The only person in politics who has ever tried to morph himself into Ronald Reagan was Al Gore in his first debate with George W. Bush. He even wore makeup that echoed the heightened color of Mr. Reagan's cheeks. He wound up looking not like Mr. Reagan but like a turn-of-the-century madam in a San Francisco whorehouse, but that's not important. What's important is the jarring weirdness of seeing one politician trying to make you unconsciously experience him as another politician. ...


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