JFK Redux

For lo these many years, progressive Democrats have been scanning the political horizon wistfully for another John F. Kennedy -- for someone combining grace, intelligence, inspirational qualities, and a liberal sensibility. That charismatic figure, should he appear, would surely lead them out of the wilderness and return their party to its glory days.

They thought they had found the new JFK in the 1980s, when Gary Hart appeared on the scene, but Hart's self-immolation in 1988 ended that dream. Then, in the 1990s, the torch was passed briefly to Bill Clinton, whose presidency, as it turned out, evoked not Camelot but Dogpatch. Again, in 2000, party progressives thought they detected Kennedyesque qualities in Bill Bradley, but the spark failed once more to ignite.

Now, at last, they may have come upon their man. Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, tall and ruggedly handsome, Yankee aristocrat but Irish Catholic on one side, moderately liberal in political philosophy, a naval hero with anti-war credentials, and the possessor of historically resonant initials, seems almost too good to be true. Kerry's coming-out party was held in late February at the California State Democratic convention, and he wowed the crowd.

The reaction of the party regulars in attendance was particularly striking because Kerry shared the stage with two other heavyweight 2004 hopefuls, Senators Tom Daschle and John Edwards, who have each been making large political waves lately. Daschle, as Senate majority leader, has been the Democrats' point man against the Bush administration, and the party's titular leader by default. A seasoned politician, he nevertheless seemed ill at ease on the California hustings and strangely unsure of himself; his rhetoric was forced and his humor strained. Edwards, proclaimed the party's rising star largely on the basis of Hollywood good looks and the glibness of a trial lawyer (which he is), found his homespun tribune-of-the- people routine a comparatively hard sell among Golden State Democrats. His reception was cordial and attentive, but decidedly lukewarm.

It was Kerry who stole the show, with an address, broadcast to a national audience via C-Span, that was by turns funny, serious, thoughtful, and articulate. For a politician considered cool and aloof, with a reputation for Al Gore-like stiffness, Kerry was remarkably warm and gregarious. Starting with a gentle, but deft, putdown of the absent former vice president -- Gore was being held in a safe, undisclosed location, Kerry joked -- he proceeded to touch all the traditional Democratic bases, including some that have been sorely neglected of late.

The Massachusetts junior senator called for national health insurance, with a forcefulness not heard since Bill Bradley raised the issue in the 2000 primaries. He affirmed his uncompromising support for labor unions, using a reference to New York's unionized firemen and policemen that roused the labor-friendly audience. He assailed GOP tax policies, labeling them "Robin Hood in reverse." He repeated an earlier pledge to derail the Bush plan to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And he unveiled a forward-looking proposal to move the nation away from fossil fuels and toward alternative energy sources, with a goal of "twenty/twenty" -- 20% reliance on renewables by the year 2020.

All in all, it was a bravura performance: a substantive, elegant speech punctuated by humor and delivered in a crowd-pleasing, but not demagogic, manner -in short, just the sort of political address John F. Kennedy would have given in the 1960s. Nevertheless, there were things not said that could have been said, and issues not raised that should have been raised, all of which points to the fact that, by progressive standards, Kerry is still a work in progress.

As The Nation's David Corn reported in a perceptive article last year, Kerry remains a bundle of contradictions; he is quite liberal on some issues -- for public housing, for public financing of political campaigns, and against striker-replacement workers and the death penalty -- and distressingly conservative on others -- for free trade, for welfare "reform," and (in the 1980s) for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

The most disturbing element in Kerry's political resume is his steadfast support of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)'s corporatist free-trade agenda. Over the past decade, the Massachusetts senator, no doubt reflecting his state's latter-day conversion to a high-tech center for the New Economy, has voted enthusiastically for NAFTA, fast-track trade authority, and PNTR (permanent normal trading relations) with China -- all initiatives harmful to traditional blue-collar America. In light of this, two important questions have to be answered by progressives. First, is Kerry educable on the trade issue, as Jack Kennedy was on civil rights in 1962-63? Second, should resistance to corporate globalization become a litmus test for the Democratic presidential nomination, much as support for abortion is now, and if so, can any prospective party nominee pass it?

As regards John Kerry, the jury is still out. He may be Bill Bradley with hair, an essentially centrist Democrat with quirky liberal impulses on a few selected social and environmental issues. On the other hand, if he exhibits a capacity to grow and the sensitivity to reach a broader understanding of the economic problems of average Americans (as Kennedy did in the West Virginia coalfields in 1960), Kerry could indeed be the Democrats' new JFK. Certainly, despite troubling aspects of his voting record, the Bay State's junior senator does not appear to be another Al Gore, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the DLC with limited political acumen. What he is, however, is not exactly clear -- except for one thing: He appears to be a winner.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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