Does Barack Obama have a JFK problem?
When Obama swept into the Oval Office back in 2008, just about everyone compared him to that other senator-turned-president with a cadre of young followers.
Almost three years into Obama's presidency, one doesn’t hear many of those comparisons anymore. Most questions revolve around whether he can defeat whichever uninspiring GOP candidate gets the nomination.
With another election cycle in the hopper, who better to discuss both Commanders-in-Chief than Chris Matthews, a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, D.C. bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner and current host of MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews.”
Matthews already wrote one book on Kennedy’s relationship with Richard Nixon, and on Tuesday he will release another book on the 35th President, a biography titled “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.”
TheWrap talked with Matthews about the Kennedy myth, the Obama's Kennedy problem and the 2012 presidential race.
In his last campaign, there were endless comparisons between Obama and Kennedy. Are those still apt?
Obama’s personal touch is gone. You’ll see. I personally think that’s his deficit. His lack of personal rapport and connection and bond with other politicians and the people. He doesn’t have what Jack Kennedy had, what Clinton had — relationships with people in the country.
He doesn’t have a relationship based on, "We’re all in this together." It’s: "Look how smart I am, look how good I am at this." Kennedy invited people in to help him share the Peace Corps and the special forces, to be part of winning the Cold War without a war. A Kennedy person was someone called to duty. You don’t feel that today.
Speaking of personal touches, my favorite part of your book is the back story of how Kennedy won the Senate seat in 1952 by going to every corner of Massachusetts and developing all of those connections with both local politicians and everyday citizens. Is there space in politics for that now? Or is it all big fundraisers and social media?
There was a big piece by Scott Wilson in the Washington Post about how Obama doesn’t like to hang out with politicians, how senators haven't gotten a call from him since the last election. That’s terrible. Those politicians may not be people you or I would hang out with, but who chooses a career if you don’t want to pursue it?
A lot of people have tried to change politics and make it virtual. He has a lot of young people out there social networking. I don’t think that is the same as having allies. People emailing one another is not the same as allies.
Is there a remedy to all this for Obama?
I just wrote a piece for Time where I give five pieces of advice for Obama from Jack and I end it by saying the chief reason he better start being more Kennedy-esque is he promised to be. He promised it, and he better deliver. He better be more Kennedy-esque in terms of optimism, and telling us what he’ll do in a second term.
If he doesn’t tell us what he’ll do in second term, no one will vote for him. If this is about the past, it’s in dispute. If it's about the present, he loses hands down. If it’s about the future and he can make a case he’ll be better than Romney or Cain because of experience, and the mistakes he made and learned from … I wish he’d just tell me, if there was no Tea Party, no Eric Cantor, no Mitch McConnell, what would we he do to create jobs, reduce the debt.
Show us what you would do. Reagan did that. He would always say what he’d do if there were not Democrats around.
You say you are trying to focus people on history again. Of all the subjects from history you could choose, why Jack Kennedy, who has been written about so extensively?
Have you read the book?
Of course I read the book, all 406 pages.
Having read all the books myself, I was looking for the kind of insight you get from people who have first-hand long-term relationships with someone. The kinds of questions you put to somebody late at night, which I would do to people late at night, and with intensity.
What was he like in the room with you? I wanted to get that from people in school with him, people in the Navy with him. I wanted journalists because I trust them. I trust [former Washington Post editor-in-chief] Ben Bradlee completely because of what he puts on paper. And Charlie Bartlett.
Although Jack was detached in many ways, you could catch him in the round. If you had 12 people looking at him, you could find him like a hologram in the middle of people. I’m tired of books where strangers are quoted.
You spend a great deal of time talking about his lifetime health problems. Why did you feel that should play such a large role?
Think about him growing up, his mom not visiting, thinking he has leukemia and the only person he could talk to about it was Lem Billings. All he had was this one guy to hang on for what looked to be a short life ahead. I think that was formative.
I was dreaming last night about god damn exams again at grad school. These things, they mark you. Imagine if normal people are still having exam dreams. Jack was always haunted by the leukemia threat. Three times he was read his last rites. I’m a Catholic, you’re only given that at the abyss.
Do you think a politician today could get away with hiding such health problems?
No. The truth came out at the convention, Lyndon Johnson’s guy John Connally brought it out and the Kennedys BS’d their way through it. Today I think the Kennedys would have to produce real doctors records, not that casual denial they got their doctor to write.
Some things they were able to do you can’t do today. Obviously the women you couldn’t do that today, although I do think that’s overestimated. Relationships that are truly personal, intimate and grown-up are not part of press coverage. The press doesn’t look for personal relationships unless they are thrown at you. Monica Lewisnky was thrown at people.
Yourself a Catholic, you also focus a great deal on the political significance of his Catholicism. Is there that kind of stigma for any religion today? I’d imagine it’s really just a matter of Christian or not Christian, except maybe for Mitt Romney.
You’re exactly right on that. In terms of the Latter Day Saints thing today, I think it has to do with Christian conservatives and evangelicals saying it’s not their definition of Christian.
They are entitled to that belief, but what Romney had to do is say, "If your basis of voting is sectarian and you’ll only vote for someone of your tradition, you obviously wouldn’t vote for me. But if you look at me as loyal American who operates in the interest of this country, I do qualify."
If I were him, I’d say, "I can’t win the votes of people who only vote for evangelical Christians. I don’t qualify." He has to find a way of saying it.
That said, has Romney already won the nomination?
By the pattern of every Republican election I’ve watched, yes. From 1952 to 2004, there have three names on the Republican ballot every year — Nixon, Bush and Dole. It’s a very predictable party. Reagan, Nixon, Bush, Dole – they all won the nomination on a second or third try. McCain on his second try. By that definition, it goes to Romney.
However, this is a strange year, like 1964. This may be one of those odd years like '64 where they do something extraordinary and pick a Tea Party favorite like Herman Cain. The acid test will be South Carolina. If Cain wins Iowa and Romney wins New Hampshire, the acid test will be the white voters of South Carolina.