From his first debate against Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy was the television candidate, the first American politician who was a global icon in the way we conceive of it today. Plastered across the internet, the long campaign has already made Obama a household name in every country in the world. As he combated the idea that he was Paris Hilton during the campaign, Barack will have to distinguish himself from becoming the last Democratic golden boy. Here's how he can avoid the pitfalls.There was a sense that John F. Kennedy belonged to all of us, and in his inaugural call for service, he echoed the inclusion of everyone into that political moment. But JFK wasn't just about politics. His election — from its beginnings in the famous televised debate with Richard Nixon — was about creating a cultural image that Americans could comfortably desire.
I recently wrote about the aspirational elements of Mad Men, and that was certainly true of America's love for the Kennedys — their glamourous Hyannisport compound, Jackie O's consummate sense of fashion, the handsome executive from the Irish-Catholic background. As with the Obamas, many voters wanted to be the Kennedys. That's a difficult place to govern from. Love affairs are fickle, and this very issue was on the Kennedy campaign's mind as he swept into office. Biographer James Burns chronicled JFK's ascendancy into office in The New Republic, in a time in which Kennedy's approval rating was 72 percent:
"The Kennedy buildup goes on. The adjectives tumble over one another. He is not only the handsomest, the best dressed, the most articulate, and graceful as a gazelle. H is omniscient, he swallows and digests whole books in minutes; he confounds experts with his superior knowledge of their field. He is omnipotent...the buildup will not last. The public can be cruel, and so can the press."
Burns thought the press of that time could be cruel. Could he have imagined it today?
As Frank Rich wrote earlier this year, JFK needed the poetry, he needed his image as a substitute for hard policy. Obama's the more substantial thinker, but whatever the distance between our cultural conception of Barack and reality, the key will be managing the political expectations of a popular cultural celebrity. The cultural and the political are closer together today than they were in Kennedy's time. Whether Barack and Michelle should sail to their inauguration in style the way another White House couple did many years before won't mean much. It's what they do when they get there.