February 22, 2004 - Sing On San Diego: The ghost of JFK runs for president

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: February 2004 Peace Corps Headlines: February 22, 2004 - Sing On San Diego: The ghost of JFK runs for president

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The ghost of JFK runs for president

The ghost of JFK runs for president

The ghost of JFK runs for president

Richard Louv

February 22, 2004

Some of us listen to John F. Kerry or the others do their shtick, and we understand. We know the symptoms of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Syndrome (JFKS). We've been there, done that.

In my case, the fever spiked in 1966 as I stood on a stage in a Kansas high school gymnasium facing 2,000 prospective student voters. I was wearing a tie and a borrowed madras sport coat with sleeves two inches longer than my arms. I was running for student body president against the school's football god.

My opponent had already given his campaign speech, assisted by members of the cheerleading squad, who kicked and jumped and cheered his name. Hoping that my execution would be quick and painless, I stepped to the microphone. My hands shook so hard I almost dropped my sweaty notes.

But as I began to speak, something weird happened.

My voice fell into a quavering cadence with the hint of a Boston accent. I spoke of paying any price and bearing any burden to resist the school administration, and so on. For a few moments, I was someone else.

I finished and rushed back behind the curtain, certain that I had made a fool of myself. I stared at my shoes. Then someone grabbed my arm and said, "Rich, turn around. Listen."

The roaring in my ears was the student body.

In that moment I realized three things: anything is possible; targeting school administrators (the high school equivalent of Washington insiders) is a sound political strategy; and conjuring the ghost of JFK can't hurt.

Flip through any high school yearbook from 1960 to, say, 1972, and you can tell who had JFKS: we were the ones with the hair combed just so, either the basic Kennedy coif, or the modified version: the John Fitzgerald Lennon. We were the ones whose photos were inscribed by friends recalling how "idealistic" we were. (Remember that word? It used to be a compliment. Now it's used to dismiss the naive.) We were the ones, some of us, who died in the war Kennedy helped start. And even as the country turned sour, we were the ones who always knew JFKS when we saw it.

Gary Hart was the most transparent imitator. He habitually placed his hand in the side pocket of his jacket and tucked his tie behind a lapel, even when it didn't need to be tucked.

Bill Clinton made sure every newspaper had the photographic evidence of his connection: a Boys State photo of himself shaking hands with President Kennedy. "Saturday Night Live's" Darrell Hammond says he perfected his impersonation of Bill Clinton by reciting JFK's speeches in a Southern drawl.

Today, Sen. John Edwards evokes Kennedy even more than Clinton did. At 50, Edwards looks younger than Kennedy did in 1960, when he was 43. Edwards could easily diffuse questions about his age by comparing himself to JFK. But he usually lets others make that comparison. He undoubtedly recalls what happened to callow Dan Quayle when he compared himself to Kennedy, only to be flattened by the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Lloyd Benson, who said: "I knew John Kennedy, John Kennedy was a friend of mine, and you, senator, are no John Kennedy."

Bush could use something like that line this year.

His likely combatant is John F. Kerry, who surely takes the prize as JFK's most sincere flatterer. "His hero and model was John F. Kennedy," writes Evan Thomas, editor of Newsweek and Robert Kennedy's biographer. "Kerry was teased by his schoolmates about his initials (JFK), but he wanted Kennedy's voice and accent and haircut, too."

Today, Kerry is an older, sadder version of Kennedy, perhaps with a touch of Lincoln, jabbing his finger into the air as he speaks.

It's a strange phenomenon. Kennedy's assassination, like a camera flash that freezes everything, arrested the development of many young males of a certain generation who, for whatever reason, needed a male role model, a hero or a martyr. It will be over soon. Nearly two-thirds of Americans living in 2004 had not been born by Nov. 22, 1963. The JFK Syndrome will run its natural course, along with what's left of the myth.

Yet, Kennedy had something that the best politicians still desire.

Despite his flaws, President Kennedy was a master of the inspiring ultra-spin. Time after time he took a terrible trend and reframed it as higher purpose: the threat of missile warfare as the space race; the ugly American as the Peace Corps; the cruelty of racial violence as the beginning of the legislative civil rights struggle.

Was JFK a phony? Some folks believe that. Are his imitators just empty suits? Some people believe that, too. But even in their fakery, some of these politicians, good at heart, are reaching for that lost alchemy: the ability to turn despair and cynicism into hope and possibility.

That's what keeps JFK's ghost nearby.

I won that school election in the spring of 1966, and spent the summer trying to convince myself that it was true; that a nerd, so lacking in social graces, could make good. Through the steaming days of August, I mowed lawns and quietly repeated this mantra, "I'm student body president. I'm student body president," possibly in a Kennedy accent.

I needed the courage.

Louv's column appears on Sundays. He can be reached via e-mail at rlouv@cts.com or at


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Story Source: Sing On San Diego

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Presidents - Kennedy; Election2004 - Kerry



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