Ask Not

ASK NOT….One of the more common historical analogies of this year’s presidential race is drawing a connection between Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy. Theodore Sorensen, the legendary JFK speechwriter, has himself promoted the similarities heavily, and it’s not at all unusual to hear voters sympathetic to Obama make the same link.

I suspect even most Obama backers would concede, though, that it’s an imprecise comparison. In a new web-only feature here at the Monthly, the New America Foundation’s Ted Widmer, a foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton in his second term, highlights the very different paths the two took on route to presidential campaigns.

One of the natural similarities is, of course, youth. In 1960, JFK was 43 — three years younger than Obama is now. But Widmer notes that Kennedy’s experiences were far different than those of the senator from Illinois.

The more one looks into Kennedy’s lifelong preparation for the job, the more one realizes how misleading it was, then and now, to describe him as inexperienced. […]

Kennedy, of course, was a decorated veteran of World War Two, which he fought in the South Pacific. But before and after the conflict, he had acquired travel experiences that most people take a lifetime to accumulate, richly detailed in biographies like Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life…. He maintained this lively interest in world affairs as a young Congressman. In 1951 he went on two extraordinary journeys, the first a five-week trip to Europe, from England to Yugoslavia, to consider the military situation on the continent. Then, a few months later, a seven-week, 25,000-mile trek that included Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Thailand, French Indochina, Korea and Japan. It was this trip, in particular, that awakened a sense in him that the old colonial empires were doomed, and that the French effort to keep Vietnam was especially futile.

Widmer makes a strong case that when it comes to foreign policy experience, Kennedy and Obama have backgrounds that vary widely. Take a look.