You bump into an article in The Atlantic magazine. It's about John F. Kennedy, an American hero writ large -- except that he wasn't. It tells of how he put the world at risk for the sake of politics during the Cuban missile crisis, though finally coming to his senses, and you think about another charismatic American president, Barack Obama. Will he come to his senses, too?
As of the inauguration, it didn't look like it, but let's start with Kennedy. I was a teen when he was elected, and I idolized him. He was smart, witty, athletic, good-looking, articulate, idealistic, full of energy and more. What wasn't to like? Of course, it was much later that we learned about the character failings, that a lot of that energy, for instance, owed something to amphetamines. They were one of many drugs used to address terrible health issues he never confessed to the nation.
He wasn't bad on all policies, to be sure, but then there was his backing of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and his reckless deepening of our involvement in Vietnam. The worst of his fumbling was taking us to within inches of nuclear war. It is detailed in a new book, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory, by Sheldon Stern, head of the John F. Kennedy Library for more than two decades.
In a review of the work in the January /February issue of The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz points out that much of this information has been known for years, even though a far more positive version seems to prevail in the public imagination, fostered there by Kennedy colleagues and an obliging media.
So know, first off, that the Soviet Union put the missiles in Cuba because we had parked missiles in its backyard, namely Turkey, and because the Kennedy administration had been trying every trick there is, including assassination attempts, to depose Fidel Castro's communist government.
Kennedy's own taped words show he himself knew perfectly well that missiles close to our shores posed no more danger than missiles that could be launched from afar. The problem was politics and how it would look if we didn't make a fuss and get the Soviet Union to back down.
Kennedy and gang therefore put on their tough-guy hats, initiated a Cuban blockade and made it known that they would settle for nothing less than the other side's unconditional retreat. It seemed the Soviet Union wouldn't budge. All hell could easily have broken loose, and that is hell as in the most devastating war humanity has ever known.
In the final analysis, the Kennedy who got us into the crisis got us out of it through a deal to remove our missiles from Turkey if the Soviets would remove theirs from Cuba. The best in him finally came out, although the deal was kept secret and cohorts happily bashed the reputations of those who publicly suggested the solution he adopted. Will Obama let the best in him come out in a second term?
Like Kennedy, he is a charmer. He has a keen intellect. He is a great speaker. And like Kennedy, he can be worse than amateurish, as in "Obamacare" (debt-expanding, job-inhibiting and full of "gotcha" mistakes), helping to give us the worst economic recovery since World War II and enlarging the debt that could wreck us (refusing even the compromise suggested by leaders of his own debt commission and negotiating with Republicans as if nobility telling the peons to go hang).
Unlike Kennedy, he is acting like he may never get it right. As Obama has himself conceded, the heart of our debt problem is the unsustainable entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Without restructuring, they will collapse along with just about everything else in government. But in his inaugural, he made it sound as if he were more interested in political points than reform, and the threat of charisma is that too many idolaters overlook ruinous faults and there is too little pressure for change. Bad outcomes and wiser Republicans may induce that change, though, and let's all keep hoping.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.)