JFK…. junior?

Caroline Kennedy endorses Senator Obama, saying America needs a President like her father:

My reasons are patriotic, political and personal, and the three are intertwined. All my life, people have told me that my father changed their lives, that they got involved in public service or politics because he asked them to. And the generation he inspired has passed that spirit on to its children. I meet young people who were born long after John F. Kennedy was president, yet who ask me how to live out his ideals.

It’s not a small thing to cut the kind of dashing figure that JFK did, such that people were so inspired. This is of a piece with the entire irrational Barack Obama love affair that the elites are engaged in now and their search for a man on a white horse to make it all feel good — regardless of the man’s utter lack of experience in national government or in any executive capacity. It’s what insane blogger Andrew Sullivan calls, with no hint of irony over the preposterousness of it, “the rebranding of America.”

And how well did we do with this sort of rebranding the first time around? Well, what we got was terrific marketing, tailored perfectly for the Land of Entertainment and the loving sycophants who both ate it up and dished it out:

Brainpower and a talent to amuse were the most highly valued traits. JFK “enjoyed . . . almost anyone from whom he could learn . . . communicating on the level of the Bundy brothers and the Cassini brothers,” wrote Sorensen. Both Jack and Jackie abhorred the mundane. JFK said he “hated the suburbia-type existence” with its endless cocktail parties. Even as a teenager Jackie had confided to her sister a distaste for country club women who could converse only about monograms on guest towels and the progress of their children’s teeth.

JFK expected “real ping pong in the communication,” in the words of White House aide Fred Holborn. Katharine Graham, then the mousy wife of the Washington Post’s glamorous president and publisher, confessed that her “terror” of boring JFK “paralyzed and silenced” her. When Suzanne Roosevelt, the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., hosted Jack and Jackie for dinner, she caught the President’s attention by quoting Lincoln. “My God, I said something that interested him,” she recalled thinking at the time.

Kennedy “hated dimness,” said Isaiah Berlin. “Anybody who was dim, no matter how virtuous, how wise, how . . . noble . . . [was] no good to him.” Nor was anyone with less than one hundred percent loyalty. “The Kennedys were pretty tough eggs,” said Marian Schlesinger. “Either you were in or you were out. . . . I think the Kennedys really turned people into courtiers. . . . They manipulated and used people in a rough way.”

Jack and Jackie Kennedy would quite literally command their courtiers to sing and dance. Paul “Red” Fay, who became friendly with JFK during World War II, routinely performed “Hooray for Hollywood,” yelling out the lines as JFK doubled over with laughter. Oleg Cassini would launch into his “Chaplin walk” or the latest dance step from New York nightclubs. “Kennedy knew he was a potentate, and at a dinner for 150 he would point a finger at you and say, ‘Talk,'” said Cassini. “Was I a performing seal? Yes, and it was a slightly naughty thing. He did it to a lot of people. In Palm Beach after a heavy lunch he told everyone to do pushups and everyone did, trying to impress him.”

Caroline, of course, was just a baby during this show, but as an adult she learned how it inspired. I believe there’s a lot to be said for inspiration, in fact, and for a persona in the White House that radiates confidence, brains and charm.

But marketing and branding and good vibes are not only not enough for a product to succeed. When they are the only thing that matters, they can mask a very bad business model so severely that very bad business decisions are made, and money is thrown down the drain. When that product is leadership of the world’s most powerful nation, however, it’s beyond merely “bad business” — it’s potentially catastrophic.

We can hardly blame Jack Kennedy’s daughter for loving her father and cherishing an idealized version of his memory, or for thinking maybe Senator Obama can bring back that special feeling. For the rest of us, though, the less emotion invested in the enterprise, the better. Because the Senator is indeed charming, handsome and young. Historians still debate whether Kennedy was a great President, a good one, or a bad one. There were great successes and there were great failures. Did charisma help Kennedy achieve some of the success? Probably. Did it mask much of the failure, both contemporaneously and for years after? Certainly. Can a grownup country in a less stable world even than that of the Cold War era during which Kennedy served afford a brand-driven, inspiration-based presidency in the hands of a man with so little appropriate experience? It’s hard to imagine that we can.

Ron Coleman blogs at Likelihood of Success.

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