This week, Barak Obama retraced JFK’s steps and spoke at Berlin’s iconic Brandberg gate.
The White House was going for a ‘JFK moment’ and the world’s media was keen to lap up the easy comparisons between these two handsome, eloquent men.
Of course it was no accident Obama’s visit came almost exactly 50 years after Kennedy’s famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech.
The speech is regarded by many as one of the greatest ever made by a US president. At a time when Obama is facing growing disenchantment among those who twice put him in the Oval office, he wants to remind everyone he is the torch-bearer from Camelot and that ‘hope’ is still alive.
As usual, POTUS (President of the United States) spoke gloriously, calling for worldwide equality, regardless of ‘race, or religion, gender or sexual orientation’.
He lavishly praised ‘a free and united Germany’ and celebrated the West’s victory in the Cold War over ‘regimes that suppress [our universal rights]’.
JFK gave his speech on 26 June 1963, a mere six months before he was gunned into immortality on Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
Those bullets really were magic because they cast a spell on the West’s psyche which has endured, and grown, in the half century since.
Many who hanker for a true world of equals, where we evolve away from self-interest, envy and exploitation and towards global democracy and freedom, hold JFK in a hallowed position.
He is seen as the Luke Skywalker of the left. The new hope who would have led America and the world into a beautiful new age of Aquarius had the forces of evil not conspired to wrench him from our grasp.
He championed civil rights, launched mankind’s journey to the moon and, as the whole world braced itself for annihilation, he managed to avoid nuclear war with maniacal Khrushcev and his crazy soviets.
Behind the curtain
The truth is much less glittering.
JFK was more like Anakin. He showed great talent and probably had wonderful intentions, but in the end was too weak to fight the dark side of established privilege and self-interest.
The space race which he launched cost the equivalent of $100bn and blowing this on a global pissing contest meant the US missed the chance to introduce a welfare system like the UK did and millions of Americans were left in poverty.
For a fresh take on the Cold War and the US domestic and foreign policies, watch Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States
All of this means that, in the same way that a stopped clock is right a couple of times a day, the spin on Obama’s Brandenberg speech revealed the truth.
Obama is, in all too many ways, the reincarnation of JFK.
Not for the superstar status, adored wife, soaring oratory or vibrant idealism; for the victory of style over substance and rhetoric over reality.
As JFK missed the opportunity to deal differently with Moscow and instead ramped up fear of communists, Obama has failed to think differently about US foreign policy and is ramping up fear of ‘terrorists’.
As JFK was slow to bring in civil rights changes which he knew the country deserved, Obama has been over timid in bringing in social reforms which those left behind in the US desperately need.
As JFK allowed J Edgar Hoover’s FBI to encroach on freedoms for fear of his own secrets being revealed, Obama has been become the thing he said he detested as a candidate and allowed the US secret services to spy on his countrymen (and everyone else) in the name of security.
As JFK preached peace but waged war in Vietnam and rattled his sabre over Cuba, Obama has stepped up the use of heartless drones, left Guantanamo open and prosecuted patriots who highlight wrongdoing.
The degree to which Obama has changed his tune, while doing the same dance, is smartly shown by this Electronic Frontier Foundation campaign which pitches Obama the candidate against Obama the president.
Like most on the left, and even many who wouldn’t have labelled themselves that way, Obama’s election was a moment of triumph for me.
I’m not ashamed to admit I cried as Change is Gonna Come played and this breath of fresh air swept to victory in 2008. Despite the polls, I lacked the courage to let myself believe a country that had twice elected George W, would chose this man, who seemed like the smartest, coolest, most charming man in any room.
Even last time, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The prospect of President Romney was just too frightening for words.
Is it a real sign of madness that I still cling to the hope somewhere behind the swagger and smile, the heart of the community organiser still beats?
I still imagine the real Obama is in there and will break free to be the president the planet need him to be.
Even the lesser evil is still evil
Don’t get it twisted and think I’m saying that Obama and JFK were bad presidents. Both were country mile’s ahead of the people they faced at the ballot box (Nixon, Romney, McCain, Palin, Ryan).
Like Kennedy, Obama still represents a pleasing change of style from his predecessor. It’s just nowhere near the change we were promised.
How much any president can do while at the helm of a gargantuan beast like the USA is a matter of opinion.
The ever-excellent Gary Younge, said in the Guardian:
America did not come by that power through its own innate genius. It acquired it, as do all empires, in no small part through war, invasion, subterfuge and exploitation. Spying and lying about it comes with the job description for which Obama applied and was reappointed.
Gary says almost by definition a US president can’t truly champion freedom and if you’re not championing freedom, you can’t be on the side of the angels.
Is it too much to ask for a US president who looks beyond protecting the wealth of his nation’s elite and instead sees that by and sharing domestic resources more fairly and approaching the world differently, it really is still possible to deliver on hope and be worthy of messiah status?
Lee Pinkerton explores this in his blog Martin, Malcolm, Mandela and Obama – the Messiah Complex
Maybe one day, a great orator will use their skills, not just to win elections, but also to build a human shield of public support to protect them from the onslaught of the self-interested.
Obviously JFK can do nothing about his legacy but it’s not too late for Obama.
If he can walk in the shadow of just some of his talk he could still carve his name in stone as one of the great presidents.
In Berlin Obama said:
Threats to freedom don’t merely come from the outside. They can emerge from within — from our own fears, from the disengagement of our citizens.
We must move beyond a mindset of perpetual war. And in America, that means redoubling our efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo.
It means tightly controlling our use of new technologies like drones. It means balancing the pursuit of security with the protection of privacy.
As free peoples [we] still believe the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Unlike JFK, Obama still has the chance to make good on his words.
If he can’t, or won’t, our hearts will break all over again.