Apropos the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK (originally written on 27 January 2008).
The New York Times is reporting that Senator Edward Kennedy will endorse Barack Obama tomorrow. This news follows in the wake of Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama in a New York Times Op-Ed, in which she writes: “I have found the man who could be that president” who inspires people as did her father, JFK. This is certainly a major coup for the Obama campaign, to have the last surviving member of Camelot bestow the Kennedy imprimatur on his pursuit of the Presidency. Any evocation of her father tugs at the heartstrings of Democrats old enough to remember anything about 22 November 1963, perhaps the most significant date in American political memory until 9/11. Strategically, the double dip of Caroline Kennedy and Senator Ted may put into play such Clinton “safe states” as New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts on 5 February. It will also not be easy for the Clintonistas to spin these endorsements, from the daughter and the brother, especially Bill, the self-represented legatee of the Kennedy tradition. Additionally, the logic of ethnic politics can be drawn out of Ted Kennedy’s endorsement. Ted co-sponsored (with McCain) the defeated immigration reform legislation that had less draconian paths to legalization for millions of illegal immigrants. In the Lou Dobbsified American imagination, illegal immigrant equals “Mexican.” Hence, the message can be delivered: Obama is good for “Latinos.” Obama should play this “ethnic card” to the hilt.
A question remains: why invoke the Father at all? If, as some pundits write, Americans may not want alternating political dynasties (Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton), what recommends the symbolic capital of the Ur-Dynasty in American politics? Is this a unconscious hankering for the long lost aristocratic beginnings of the nation? For now, I’ll propose that politics is about identity and the projection of identity. Unburdened of the responsibility of historical memory, there is a tendency in American politics to traffic in imagery. This is not necessarily a criticism. But what it means is that the political unconscious of the nation tends towards a search for the most positive image as the anchor of identity. The optimistic and naive self-conception of Americans about their place in the world order is mirrored by the desire to find “likable” people to have exclusive access to the launch code of the U. S. nuclear arsenal. In recent memory, the two parties have two fail-safe images: the “Happy days are here again” Reagan and the photogenic JFK (and Jackie), who asked the nation to do something for the greater good. If this is true, the photogenic Barack Obama, with the immigrant’s name, will stand a good chance against the fidgety persona of Hillary Clinton, and the clenched jaw militarism of the aged McCain. Neither Clinton nor McCain emit the sort of light that enveloped JFK and now Obama. Caroline Kennedy has simply reminded Americans of the Democratic stripe: Father was best.