Today, Barack Obama became the latest American President to make the time honored mistake of travelling to Berlin with President Kennedy’s 1963 speech still ringing in his ears. Speaking almost 50 years to the day since President Kennedy spoke to a million Berliners from City Hall, Barack Obama sought to emulate the fallen hero of Camelot and came up short. Well short.
Where Kennedy delivered a short speech filled with emotion and passion, scribbled together on a flight over the Atlantic, Obama gave a cool and detached address that appeared to have been written by a committee and which was noticeably devoid of any resounding lines of its own or indeed original thought.
This was perhaps, a speech for its time, just as Kennedy’s was. Except that when Kennedy spoke it was to a divided city and a divided world and his voice gave hope and reassurance that the United States would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Berlin and the free world in the hour of maximum danger. That was the theme of the day, the moment and the era. In contrast, Obama delivered an aimless, meandering address that desperately lacked a center. To quote Churchill, like a poor dessert, it lacked a theme.
Obama suggested that this generation should not, indeed could not, rest on the laurels of the past generation or merely reflect on history. And yet he offered no specific sense of direction or a road map for the future, which was, of course, Kennedy’s genius. Instead, he delivered a smorgasbord of half-baked ideas and platitudes about co-existence. Climate change, nuclear disarmament, gay right, women’s rights, poverty reduction, economic rejuvenation, international trade, curing AIDS: All were covered in a speech that had no theme except its desire to be all things to all people. It was a liberal wish list of aspirations for an ideal world and totally at odds with the history of the last decade. Obama is, as he pointedly reminded the crowd, President of the United States and has been now for so long that he is into his second term. Yet his wish list of aspirations contained no sense that he felt any responsibility or capability to enact them or that he had done since January 2009.
The speech was high on expectations but low on delivery and lacking in passion. Time and again, Obama made direct or oblique reference to speeches of the past, but said nothing memorable himself. In fact, his repeated effort to quote from the past merely reinforced the vapid nature of his own remarks. Obama wisely referred to Kennedy’s other remarks from 1963, but in so doing, he failed to instill a sense of passion for the fallen icon, remorse at his passing or any of the vision that Kennedy inspired that day and in the years that followed.
Obama quoted Madison, Kant, Kennedy and King, yet in a speech that was staged on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, with his back to West Berlin, meters away from where Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Wall that divided the city and the world, Obama failed to mention the importance of the Gipper’s remarks, in what was a poor move that revealed the sad state of partisan American politics.
Obama’s delivery was faltering and it was notable that he was speaking to the crowd through 6 inches of armored glass from a text and not from a teleprompter. Maybe the sunlight prevented the auto-cue from working, but again, it was noticeable how dependent he is on the technology to deliver on the big occasions and how off his game he is when it fails.
“A world of Peace with Justice” emerged as a theme towards the end of the address, but this seemed forced. The loudest cheer came with the call to close Gitmo, but again, Obama has been president for 5 years, a time that has seen the magic luster compared to his last visit in 2008. There was a clear effort to address anger in regard to the NSA eavesdropping in the final section, but this received scant attention or response from the crowd.
It was, all in all, a remarkably unremarkable address.
I am pleased to announce that the first of my weekly postings for The Commentator has appeared this lunchtime. The piece, which laments the last flight of the Space Shuttle and the accompanying reduction in America’s national vision under President Obama, is available at here
I am delighted to announce that I will be addressing the Transatlantic Studies Association’s annual conference in Dundee next week.
I will be joining a panel to discuss Transatlantic Relations, Diplomacy, Statecraft and Culture in the Second World War.
My discussion will focus on the problematic relationship between Winston S. Churchill and Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the future American president. It will consider concepts of personality, geopolitics and the foreign policy implications of the ‘not so’ special relationship between the two men. It will also consider the vital role of isolationism in US foreign policy at this time.
This will be the first in a series of papers to be produced that will form the basis for my new research project on the development of the relationship between the Kennedy family and the Churchills from 1938-1968. The project will address the Ambassador’s posting to London, his dealings with Chamberlain, his mis-reading of Churchill and his fall from grace. It will also consider the influence that his time in London had on the young John F. Kennedy and the degree to which his career was influenced by Churchill, leading to his decision as president, to appoint the former PM with honorary American citizenship.
So now we know the truth. After all of the shenanigans regarding birth certificates, it emerges that Barack Hussein Patrick O’Bama is really an Irishman. Apparently, one of over 20 presidents who make claim to Irish ancestry. Few have as strong claim to such roots as John F. Kennedy, who famously returned to the Emerald Isle in the last summer of his all too brief life, but America’s newest Irish-American made a brave (and nicely light hearted) pitch in front of a crowd of thousands in central Dublin last night.
The president’s speech was a remarkable tour de force, coming on the heels of an equally spirited address by Taoiseach Kenny. In an emotive and wide ranging address, O’Bama weaved personal and national narrative together in a highly effective manner that really made one realise why he is the President of the United States. At times it has been easy to forget the power that his rhetoric carried in the 2008 campaign, but it was certainly on show in Dublin last night.
If there is a downside to this it is perhaps that the people of England will no be privy to a similar occasion. The president’s schedule in England is formality personified: staying at Buckingham Palace, meetings with the Prime Minister and addressing both Houses of Parliament. It is a shame that no such public occasion appears to have been factored into the president’s schedule. Could it be anything to do with the absence of a discernible English-American voting block in the States?
Every once in a while words fail me. As a writer, academic and broadcaster, I am sue that you can imagine that this is a problematic situation. However, such a situation occurred recently after watching the TV miniseries, The Kennedys.
Before I go any further let me state for the record my interest in this material. It may be hard to believe, but as a young guy growing up in Thatcher’s Britain I was a little unfocused. At 14 I imagine most guys are. Certainly I was more interested in football and girls than in studying and accordingly my ‘forward thinking’ teachers assured me that I would never amount to much, and would certainly fail any A levels that I should attempt.
And then something interesting happened. British television screened a miniseries starring Martin Sheen as the lead role in Kennedy. Broadcast over consecutive nights I was hooked, even if they finished too late for me to watch the end of them.
From then on I was hooked on American history and by extension, politics. Martin Sheen’s portrayal of JFK probably had as big an impact on me as anything ever put on screen. I started reading about the president, the family, the assassination and later on wider issues pertaining to the nation and its history. Like a ripple in a pool, my interests widened, but always with JFK at the heart of things. Eventually we studied the assassination at school and for the first time, I knew more about an event than the teacher.
So, it’s important to note that 1) I’m interested in the subject matter, and that 2) I’m no academic snob. I’m of the belief that whatever it takes to get people interested in history or politics, or whatever, is a good thing if it inspires people to develop an interest.
So, to end the digression and return to the subject at hand….
Earlier in the year, controversy arose when it was revealed that The History Channel were producing a lavish $30 million dollar mini series examining the Kennedy family. Key members of the Kennedy entourage spoke out against the project having seen drafts of the shooting script. This included the late, great Ted Sorenson, whom I had the very great honour of meeting before his death last year. The fear was that this was to be a conservative interpretation of events that would raise all sorts of scandals and portray a very different idea of Camelot than I had experienced in 1983.
Things came to a head when the finished project was turned over for broadcast. Realising the state of the finished article, the History Channel passed on the project. Having financed it, they now refused to broadcast it, claiming “this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.” Channel after channel passed on the project until it was later picked up by the ReelzChannel at a cost of $7 million, plus a further $10 million in advertising and broadcast the series in April 2011.
What you would be forgiven for not knowing having watched The Kennedys
1. That Ted Kennedy ever exited
2. That Joe and Rose Kennedy ever had more than 4 children (only Joe Jr, JKF, RFK and Rosemary are identified)
3. That Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday, Mr President
4. That Frank ‘The Voice’ Sinatra organised the Inaugural gala
5. That JFK gave more than 3 speeches as president
6. That JFK ever travelled overseas as President
7. That Kennedy signed a nuclear test ban treaty
8. That JFK and Jackie ever had civil world to say to each other
9. That Jackie miscarried in the 1950s
10. That JFK was 6ft tall and not shorter than most people around him
11. That haircuts changed from 1952-1968
12. That someone named Martin Luther King existed
13. That RFK went on a voyage of self discovery from 1963 to 1968
14. That anything of any importance happened between 1963 and 1968
15. That there is any dispute over the deaths of the Kennedy brothers.
16. That Joe Kennedy was American and not British.
17. That Joe Kennedy had his stroke in the winter of 1961 and that the administration carried on fine for almost 2 years after that.
18. That JFK had a group of talented individuals around him who worked on key issues and ensured a successful delivery of the administration’s policies and messages.
19.That there was anyone else in the cabinet except Bob McNamara (who looked nothing like he did in this series and was pictured sitting on the wrong side of the President in key meetings.
20. That Secretary of State Rusk was not the same person as Ambassador Stevenson. Time and again the show allocated sentiments and statements articulated by US Ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, to Secretary of State Rusk.
I could go on, but time and space prevent this!
Problems abounded in the production. There was a lack of tension, music was terrible, the use of non-related, pretentious quotations at the start of episodes was distracting. The habit of starting episodes with the climax before rehashing events that led up to events was repetitive and didactic. And then there were the haircuts…
I don’t know how familiar any of you are with fashion, but over a 16-year time span, they change. But not on this show. JFK and RFK are shown with the same wigs throughout this entire time period, ensuring that RFK looked exactly the same at the start of Ike’s America, as he did at the peak of the hippy movement in 1968.
This was nothing more than a Pantomime interpretation of history. The real tragedy will be if anyone accepts it as history, or worse is repelled from this incredible story due to the awful portrayal of events in this travesty of a show.
Cameron is hardly the first politician to attempt to emulate a Kennedyesque picture postcard family, but he has been unusually brazen in his use of language and phrases that have their origins in the time period. Lest anyone wonder quite what I mean consider the following examples:
Long before he became Prime minister, David Cameron was referencing JFK in a speech that called for cleaner cars and lower fuel emissions. Speaking to environment leaders in June 2008, Cameron deliberately called for a Kennedy style focus on a new mission. “As John F Kennedy said of his vision of an American on the moon by 1970, a goal that at the time seemed impossible to achieve: ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.’ We need a JFK vision for clean cars today.”
Cameron’s speech of March 31, 2010 revealed the central philosophy of his public policy; the Big Society. Cameron referred to Kennedy as having asked ‘the noble question’ as posed in his inaugural address: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Quoting liberal Democrats is hardly a thing that British conservative Prime Ministers have made a habit of, but David Cameron would buck that trend . His speech also lauded the work of Barack Obama, the former community organiser turned Commander-in-Chief.
At the April 13, 2010 launch of his election manifesto, Cameron referred to Kennedy as “a great American president” and proceeded to repeat the fabled words, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” as a preface to his concept of getting people to aid their families and their community too. So, two things here; firstly the reference to JFK, a liberal Democrat as being “great,” and secondly the direct quote from Kennedy’s inaugural address of January 1961. When I was involved with the Tories in the late 1990s my efforts to consort with Democrats Abroad were forbidden. Now we have a conservative Prime Minister heaping praise on a Democrat President. I’d call that progress. This was too much to go un-noticed, of course, with the Telegraph referring to it as ‘Cameron’s Kennedy Moment.’ Missed, however, was Cameron’s distinctly American reference to “we, the people.”
The Conservative campaign manifesto document made reference to ‘the brightest and the best,’ a phrase that was identified with Kennedy’s cabinet before it was ironically inverted by David Halberstam in his Pulitzer Prize winning book on the drift to war in Vietnam. Cameron was not only paraphrasing JFK, but also being compared to him in political circles, to the detriment of Gordon Brown, of course, whose similarity to Richard Nixon could be the subject of a whole other posting!
Now, one need not be a particularly avid reader of American politics or history to notice that Cameron’s Big Society concept bears more than a passing resemblance to President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society.’ Designed by LBJ to complete the work of FDR’s New Deal, the Great society would ultimately come undone due toe the small but competing issue of the Vietnam War and the realisation that it really wasn’t wise to attempt to have guns and butter. At its core, however, the Great society was Johnson’s dream of reducing poverty and racial divisions. Worryingly, the American link was spotted, but incorrectly attributed. The Daily Mail was quick to suggest that Cameron was once more emulating not LBJ, but his predecessor, President Kennedy. James Chapman suggested that ‘David Cameron echoes Kennedy in crusade to empower communities.’ Nice try, but wide of the mark. I’ve always found that it helps to attribute the right polices to the right presidents.
Lest anyone think that Cameron is ignoring his Republican cousins across the Atlantic, he is not about a Nixon reference when the occasion serves. As the general election was launched Cameron declared he was fighting for “the great ignored,” a phrase that immediately brought to mind Nixon’s Silent Majority. It will be intriguing to see which American president Cameron quotes next. I wouldn’t expect to hear many Bushism thrown in for good measure!