Monday, November 11, 2013

Your Life in Two Paragraphs

If Barack Obama were assassinated today, how would he be summed up? 

As the first African American elected president who also failed to deliver his signature piece of legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, on time, leaving millions worried they would be fined – or worse – if they failed to sign up for health insurance as instructed by the law?  As the president who made the United States a laughing stock, at least in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes, because he didn’t bomb Syria as previously threatened?

That might sound good if you never voted for Barack Obama.

But what if you did?           

You might say he’s the first African American elected president who not only killed Osama bin Laden but also delivered a health care law that benefits all Americans while being judicious in his use of military force.

Is either assessment fair and accurate?

Well, they’re both about right. 

Mr. Obama was the first African American elected president.  He ordered the assault on Osama bin Laden once his whereabouts were known; and, while his health care reform law was passed, and even blessed by the Supreme Court, the website enabling Americans to sign up for health insurance, scheduled to be running by October 1, 2013, wasn’t ready on time; finally, after sending strong signals about a possible attack on Syria, President Obama didn’t attack, deciding to let Congress decide U.S. actions.

Are these failings or achievements?  It depends on your political point of view.

So what are we supposed to make out of John F. Kennedy, whose presidency is undergoing a reassessment? 

Apparently historians are downgrading him because he was less than prescient with his actions, failing to understand that his moves against the Communist enemy we faced in the early 1960s would bring about a response.

If we’re to accept how some historians look at Kennedy, he should never have allowed the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 because it only led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which took the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.   Seriously, what was he thinking?

In addition, none of his most significant pieces of legislation, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his tax cut, were passed during his time in office.  It took Lyndon Johnson’s deft legislative skills to make sure Congress turned them into law.  Finally, America’s intervention in Vietnam can also be blamed on Kennedy, some historians say.

But we should keep in mind that the Civil Rights Act and the tax cut weren’t proposed until 1963, Kennedy’s last year in office.  Had he not been assassinated, it’s possible he could have signed them into law. 

Kennedy’s actions in Vietnam were consistent with Cold War policies; for that matter, the country, during his time in office, felt as threatened by Communism as we have, recently, by terrorism.

Historians face the challenge of summing up someone’s life, meaning, if they’re doing their job properly, they’ll consider the culture in which their subject lived as well as their significant experiences. 

Gerald Sorin said it best:

“ … we biographers, even those such as myself who want to write cross-over books accessible to the educated lay public, don’t simply chart the course of a life from womb to tomb; we examine our subjects in dialectical relationship to the multiple worlds they inhabit, social, political, and cultural.”

Like any president, Kennedy came into office with a host of life events, including being a member of a large family; considered, at times, the son who wouldn’t live up to his potential; a combat veteran; a Cold Warrior; an accused philanderer; it’s also thought, by some, he didn’t write the books he authored; a loving father; a Democrat who didn’t always fit in neatly with his party’s philosophy.

Did any of this make Kennedy a bad or a good president?

Unlike the vast majority of presidents, Kennedy’s one of the few who died in office.  His abbreviated term – lasting less than three years – leaves more question marks than exclamation points. 

His biggest drawback is likely the same one that afflicts Obama – a lack of executive and leadership experience prior to becoming president. 

While it’s easy for some to see black and white when it comes to presidents they like or dislike, we should keep in mind that none of us, including our leaders, are one-dimensional.

I’m hard pressed to give Kennedy a bad rap, and I’m uncomfortable pronouncing him a hero.  His successes and failures speak for themselves.


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