Originally posted at Cross Left.
Of Camelot and Issues of Inspiration and Experience
I have nothing but the greatest respect for Caroline Kennedy. Throughout her often painful life, President John F. Kennedy’s daughter has carried herself with a grace and dignity in a life that is often focuses on the better angels of public service.
As we are all aware, this past weekend she has chosen to endorse Senator Barack Obama for president. In recent op-ed endorsement entitled, “A President Like My Father,” she acknowledged that the Democratic frontrunners both have similar policy positions, but it was Senator Obama’s ability to inspire that made the difference. His style reminded her of her father’s urbane manner.
But as both the triumphs of FDR and the shortcomings of Jimmy Carter have proven, the ability to win elections with lofty words is not a guarantee of the ability to effectively govern; it requires the necessary companion of experience. With that said, I must respectfully disagree with her choice. Senator Obama’s oratory may be magnificent, but his experience simply does not approach that of Senator Clinton—nor of her father when he ascended to office. In fact, it is even difficult to discern that ability at this point in his career.
Yes, experience matters a great deal.
Writing in The Washington Monthly Ted Widmer commented on the difference between the experience of both Senator Obama and JFK:
Like [John F.] Kennedy, Obama did spend some time in his youth living in a foreign country. And because that country, Indonesia, is both Asian and majority Muslim, Obama can—and does—claim to have a unique perspective on a region and a religion that increasingly command Washington’s attention. But it’s worth noting the considerable differences between Obama’s and Kennedy’s overseas experiences. Kennedy lived in Europe, then the geo-strategic center of the world, as a footloose young man who had front-row seats at momentous diplomatic dramas, thanks to his ambassador father. Obama lived as a boy in Indonesia—a big, fascinating country, but not central to U.S. global strategy. If that childhood experience had a genuine impact beyond teaching him the obvious truth that the world is diverse, then he needs to make it clearer how he will translate that knowledge into sound policy.
Widmer further noted:
Like Kennedy, Obama has taken several long trips as a lawmaker—through the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union. But there is one noteworthy gap in Obama’s itinerary: except for a brief stopover in London, returning from Russia in 2005, he has apparently never been to Western Europe since launching his political career. What renders this gap especially surprising is that Obama is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe. Not only has the Senator not visited the region his committee oversees, but as Steve Clemons of the Washington Note has observed, Obama’s committee has not held a single policy-oriented hearing since he’s been chairman. Europe may not be the central playing field it was in Kennedy’s day, but it remains essential to the global set of alliances and relationships that the U.S. needs to cultivate in the new century. In fact, there is no place where it will be more urgent to rebuild bridges. As Obama knows, the United States cannot do it alone—and Europe will need to play a supporting role in whatever strategy the next president articulates.
But while Senator Obama reminds Caroline of her father, in Hillary I see similarities to another Kennedy—Robert F. Kennedy.
Just as Senator Obama evokes JFK’s smooth and erudite nature, Hillary recalls Robert Kennedy’s more dogged and intense nature. Much like early1968, the very same derisive descriptions that RFK had to endure from many on the Right (as well from those on the Left)—“ruthless,” “calculating,” “opportunistic” and yes, even “polarizing” are now similarly hurled at today’s junior Senator from New York. And just as a younger Robert Kennedy could be accused of questionable judgment (serving as counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy and his early support for the Vietnam War) Senator Clinton too has had her missteps. But much like RFK, she has demonstrated the ability to learn from a mistake (turning against the Iraq War as well as changing course early on bankruptcy legislation).
Yes it is true that when Bobby Kennedy ran for president he was, like Obama, entering his fourth year in the US Senate. But unlike Obama, he has already cut his teeth running his older brother’s presidential campaign, then serving as our nation’s Attorney General and perhaps most impressive of all, giving wise counsel to his brother during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was Bobby who first stood up to General Curtis LeMay’s call to preemptively bomb the missile sites and then personally negotiated a settlement with the Soviets. This was the yardstick of experience readily available to measure Bobby Kennedy when he declared his intention to run for the Democratic nomination in 1968.
This brings us to another similarity that exists between Bobby Kennedy and Hillary: both had a ringside seat in the bubble that is the White House; something that cannot be easily be discounted.
There is no similar mechanisms to measure Senator Obama’s potential judgment within such an executive capacity. Because of the junior Senator from Illinois’s short track record it is difficult to make that call.
By contrast, as First Lady Hillary Clinton has traveled the world, speaking out for children’s and women’s rights. Her legal background includes serving as general counsel and chief of staff of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate Hearings. From 1977 through 1981 she served as the Chair for the Legal Services Corporation. Since 2001 she has served my home state of New York with distinction. In 2006 she received a 95% rating on her voting record from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.
No, she does not elegantly quote Aeschulys or Camus. But like Bobby Kennedy she excels at engaging individuals on a one-on-one basis. As a New Yorker it was refreshing to see Hillary campaigning in economically hard-hit Upstate New York, seeking out individuals to hear their stories. Such outreach echoes Bobby Kennedy’s visits to tenements and migrant workers. This was not lost upon RFK’s daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend who has recently spoke of Hillary’s upstate outreach in a January 31, 2008 interview with Air America’s Thom Hartmann. Such efforts at personal connection is the stuff of actual change, more so than well-crafted oratory.
This common ethic is not lost on working and middle class Democrats, especially so with the folks I am most familiar with; Catholic and Jewish Democrats of Southeastern European heritage. These are folks who are more drawn to nuts and bolts economics than to high rhetoric. The respective candidates’ television ads illustrate this perfectly: Obama’s talks focuses on the candidate as well as abstract ideals. But Hillary’s focuses on people and their everyday problems.
But in returning to the point of this essay, in bringing about change experience matters much more than we care to admit. All too often we erroneously equate experience with perfection. But that is simply not the case. Even Republican opponents in the Senate now remark how she has learned to reach out and work with them on legislation (Isn’t that the change Obama constantly talks of?). The very essence of experience is having had the opportunity to make mistakes so as to have the ability to learn from them.
As I alluded to above, Hillary has made her share of mistakes. In 2002 there is the issue of her vote to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein (the sole subject of the next installment of this series). And in 1993 she mishandled the Clinton administration’s attempt at universal healthcare; her greatest error was to shut out any possible Republican input from the outset.
But even that particular experience must be put in its proper perspective. We need to remember that it occurred fifteen years ago—a lifetime in national politics. And while it is more than fair to criticize Hillary for her failure of fifteen years ago, it is equally unfair to immediately use it as presumptive proof that she will therefore make the very same mistakes again.
For her handful of failures, Hillary has also had her many shining moments. If she is to be assailed for her errors she must also be praised for her stands against US Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito; her outspoken advocacy of embryonic stem cell research and stalwart opposition to the Bush administration tax cuts. These are but just a few of many instances where she has stood up for American values that are simultaneously liberal and mainstream.
And it is in these shining moments that as any proud liberal can find the very inspiration to support her candidacy for president.