Jon Wiener: If Obama is JFK, Who Does That Make Hillary?





[Jon Wiener is a contributing editor to The Nation and professor of history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower (New Press, 2005).]

Ted Kennedy's statement Monday that Obama was like JFK set off a storm of historical analogies. Hillary's side fired back that she is like Bobby Kennedy - at least that's what three of Bobby's kids said the next day: "Like our father, Hillary has devoted her life to embracing and including those on the bottom rung of society's ladder," Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Kerry Kennedy declared.

Hillary herself has claimed not so long ago that SHE is our JFK: "A lot of people back then [1960] said, 'America will never elect a Catholic as president,' " she said in New Hampshire last March. "When people tell me 'a woman can never be president,' I say, we'll never know unless we try." And of course she also compared herself to LBJ, whose political skills, she said, made it possible for him to sign into law what she called "Dr. King's dream."

Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times compared Obama to Lincoln (both were undistinguished newcomers when they ran for president). Paul Krugman of the New York Times compared Hillary to Grover Cleveland (both were conservative Democrats in a Republican era). Biographer Joseph Ellis compared Obama to Thomas Jefferson (both spoke in favor of nonpartisan politics).

Sorting out these claims is, of course, a job for professionals - professional historians. They too are partisans. The only organized political group of historians in this campaign in "Historians for Obama," which includes Joyce Appleby, former president of the American Historical Association; Robert Dallek, the award-wining presidential biographer; David Thelen, former editor of the Journal of American History; and the Pulitzer-prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson.

Their statement made some sweeping analogies: "Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and kept the nation united; Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded Americans to embrace Social Security and more democratic workplaces; John F. Kennedy advanced civil rights and an anti-poverty program. Barack Obama has the potential to be that kind of president."

On the other side, there is no historians-for-Hillary organization, but there is Sean Wilentz--the Princeton professor and award-winning author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln who testified for the defense at the Clinton impeachment hearing. He recently took on the key Obama analogies in an LA Times op-ed. First, he said, Obama is no JFK: "By the time he ran for president, JFK had served three terms in the House and twice won election to the Senate," Wilentz wrote. "Before that, he was, of course, a decorated veteran of World War II, having fought with valor in the South Pacific."

And to compare Obama to Lincoln, Wilentz says, is "absurd": "Yes, Lincoln spent only two years in the House," but in 1858, when he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, Lincoln "engaged with Stephen A. Douglas in the nation's most important debates over slavery before the Civil War."

On the other hand, Robert Dallek, author of biographies of LBJ and Kennedy, has explained that the appeal of JFK in 1960 has clear parallels to Obama's campaign today: "it's the aura, it's the rhetoric, the youthfulness, the charisma," he told the Chicago Tribune blog "The Swamp."

Then there is the Lincoln analogy. Eric Foner, the former American Historical Association president and author of Reconstruction, points out that, in 1860, the Republicans had to choose between two candidates: one who claimed decades of experience in politics, the other with much less, who won support because his oratory was so inspiring and he was deemed more electable. In 1860, the candidate with experience lost the nomination to Lincoln; he was William H. Seward. That makes it fair to say that Hillary could be our Seward.

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Philip Mark Katz - 2/3/2008

If Wiener's analogy is correct (and I, for one, find it appealing), then we can only hope that Clinton becomes as loyal and useful a supporter of the Obama administration as Seward became of the Lincoln administration!

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