By Benjamin Shapell
In June of 1963, when Bill Clinton was 16 year old, he made a trip to the White House as part of an Arkansas youth delegation. It was there that he shook hands with President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden, an event which would become a pivotal point in his life and character. During the 1992 Presidential campaign, it was said that Clinton’s pursuit of public office and, ultimately, the Presidency, was largely inspired by that historic handshake.
Following his strong showing in the New Hampshire primary in February of 1992, Clinton became a serious candidate and adopted a noticeably Kennedy-esque style, both in his speech and mannerisms. As the year progressed, more and more similarities between the two men seemed to emerge, prompting us to wonder if America had stumbled upon a JFK clone.
How much was Bill Clinton really influenced by Kennedy’s style, words and actions? Is Clinton really his own man, or does he rely (perhaps too much) on JFK’s aura? If so, he wouldn’t be the first. George Bush tried to portray Dan Quayle as the Republican JFK, and failed miserably. Was Clinton’s apparent imitation of the Kennedy style more a sign of deep respect or just a vote-winning scheme designed to evoke memories of JFK and the hope he inspired in our nation over three decades ago? And, now that he has been elected, is Clinton continuing to emulate Kennedy’s political success by riding on the coattails of the former President’s legendary mystique: handsome, intelligent, respected, youthful and charismatic? Is it a wise strategy? Has it helped him so far?
We’ve made quite a few observations on the parallels between Presidents Kennedy and Clinton and feel like recording some of these similarities. So, on the 30th anniversary of Clinton’s famous handshake, we inaugurate this first edition of our Kennedy-Clinton Watch column. So many examples can be gathered from the period surrounding the campaign and inauguration alone, in fact, that we will have to reserve some of them for future issues of Insider’s Report, along with updates on the latest and most timely similarities we discover.
Perhaps the most unfortunate similarity between the Kennedy and Clinton presidencies is the fact that both suffered damaging defeats within the first 100 days in office. On April 19, 1961, John Kennedy was sent reeling by the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs. The White House issued a statement that President Kennedy bore sole responsibility and Kennedy, himself, was adamantly opposed to any attempts to shift the responsibility from his shoulders. Coincidentally, on April 19, 1993, in the wake of the Branch Davidian compound conflagration in Waco, Texas, President Clinton took full responsibility, deflecting any criticism away from his Attorney General. In the aftermath of these tragic events, both administrations were plagued early on with the image of failure in the public’s view.
On a lighter note, we offer the following seemingly intentional parallels, as well as some unintentional coincidences between the two Presidents:
ON December 18, 1992, The Wall Street Journal reported that 43% of those polled said that the President of whom Bill Clinton most reminds them is JFK – more than any other President.
* * *
JANUARY 17, 1993: ABC News. Three days before taking the oath of office, President-elect Bill Clinton spoke at the Lincoln Memorial:
Kennedy (opening remarks of his 1961 Inaugural Address): “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom.
Clinton: “We come here today to reclaim our country for the American people. To celebrate not a victory of party or persons but the common ground we call America.”
January 20, 1993: Given the generational parallels Clinton draws with Kennedy, as well as sharing the ideals of generational renewal and public service, it would probably be a safe bet that Clinton would have carefully studied President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. Paying a visit to Kennedy’s grave at Arlington Cemetery just hours before his inaugural address, he paused to read quotations from Kennedy’s inaugural engraved in marble and seemed to know them by heart. But in the wake of his 1600-word, 14 minute speech (mirroring Kennedy’s 11 minute, 1350-word speech, two of the shortest on record), perhaps he studied it a bit too carefully…
* * *
ON Bill Clinton’s Inauguration Day, January 20, 1993, ABC-TV’s “World News Tonight” observed: “If Bill Clinton’s first Presidential speech had a familiar ring, it was clearly by design. The man who said his life in politics was inspired by his meeting with John Kennedy echoed JFK’s 1961 inaugural, in tone and in substance;”
(Kennedy): “Let the word go forth from this time and place…that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
(Clinton): “I challenge a new generation of young Americans to a season of service.”
(Kennedy): “Let us begin.”
(Clinton): “Let us begin anew, with energy and hope.”
“At times,” it was noted, “he even seemed to be answering Kennedy across the generations”:
(Kennedy): “Now the trumpet summons us again.”
(Clinton): We have heard the trumpets; we have changed the guard.”
Clinton borrowed more than just a few words from Kennedy’s famous inaugural address. Like Kennedy, he declared that Americans must accept sacrifice to secure their future. And Clinton’s address, as did Kennedy’s three decades before it, guaranteed only struggle, not reward:
(Kennedy): “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
(Clinton): “My fellow Americans, you, too, must play your part in our renewal.”
In concluding its commentary, ABC News remarked: “The themes of renewal and sacrifice and hope are common to almost all inaugurals, but the heavy Kennedy echo in Mr. Clinton’s first Presidential address suggests that in matters of formal rhetoric, the new President is still looking for his own voice.”
* * *
PERHAPS looking for a Kennedy-esque, “Ask Not” ‘soundbite’ of his own, Clinton remarked: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
* * *
GARRY Wills, writing in The Los Angeles Times on January 24, 1993, also picked up on the parallels between Clinton’s and Kennedy’s respective addresses, both of which shared the theme of the passing of the torch to a new generation. Clinton spoke of a generation raised in the shadows of the cold War (a war which had been fought before he was born). Kennedy spoke for a generation “born in this century,” a clear reference to his predecessor’s age. Dwight Eisenhower had been born in 1890; Kennedy was the first president born in the twentieth century.
* * *
AT his 1961 inauguration, President Kennedy issued a “call to arms” for the new generation of Americans, asking them to do their part “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” On February 16, 1993, President Clinton used similar words as he spoke about the economy: “If you will join with me, we can create an economy in which all Americans work hard and prosper. This is nothing less than a call to arms to restore the vitality of the American dream.”
* * *
JOHN Kennedy reminded us that the arts are an essential part of life. At his inauguration he asked Robert Frost to read a poem, and invited more than 50 of the country’s outstanding writers, artists and composers to attend the ceremonies. Bill Clinton, even as Governor of Arkansas, has expressed his belief that each child conceals an original and passionate voice and that by offering the arts freely to every child everywhere, “we invest in our future as a country.” Maya Angelou, at Bill Clinton’s request, was the first poet since Robert Frost to read at a Presidential inauguration.
* * *
ON March 2, 1993, President Clinton unveiled his plan to implement his most-applauded campaign promise: to provide universal college scholarships to be repaid by public service. Borrowing liberally from the legacy of John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, another distinctly generational call to service, Clinton’s introduction of the program was timed to coincide with the 32nd anniversary of the Corps. In his speech, Clinton recalled: “For many in my own generation, the summons to citizenship and service came on this day, 32 years ago.”
The Los Angeles Times observed: “To emphasize the parallel between this program and President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, Clinton brought along a contingent of figures associated with that effort: Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps’ first director; Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a former Peace Corps volunteer. Also present was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass), a longtime advocate of such programs.”
In his 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy promised to end discrimination against blacks and later, as President, proceeded to put forth civil rights legislation. In a similar move, Clinton, in his espousal of gay rights, promised to lift the military’s ban on gays in the armed forces. Echoing Kennedy, he recently stated: “We should try to protect the rights of American individual citizens to live up to the fullest of their capacities.”
* * *
THE Clinton administration has announced that the United States will continue, despite governmental budget cuts affecting all areas of the economy, to pursue plans to have astronauts living in space by the year 2000. In a special message to Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy stated: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
* * *
WITH the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Byron White, Bill Clinton has an opportunity to appoint a Justice. During an Oval Office chat, TIME Magazine (March 29, 1993) reported that the two men “shared in particular a deep admiration for President Kennedy, who had inspired Clinton with a desire to go into politics when he was a young student.” Interestingly, Byron White was Kennedy’s first appointee to the Court in 1962, and White’s departure this year will facilitate Clinton’s first Supreme Court appointment.
* * *
ON March 11, 1993, The Wall Street Journal reported President Clinton’s nomination of Jean Kennedy Smith (the sister of President John F. Kennedy) as ambassador in Ireland. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed his own brother Attorney General; now President Clinton has appointed a Kennedy sister to a major government position.
PRESIDENT Kennedy was known for appointing “the best and the brightest ” to government service. The February 5, 1993 Wall Street Journal reports that Clinton seems to be following his lead, even recruiting from the same source. “Rhodes scholars in the Clinton administration already total about 20, exceeding the 13 in the Kennedy administration.”
* * *
IT is also interesting to note that Secretary of Defense Les Aspin came to the Pentagon as one of Robert McNamara’s whiz kids, the latter having served as Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy. And, like McNamara, Aspin was a business executive prior to his elevation to government service.
* * *
DURING the Vice Presidential debates in 1988, Lloyd Bentsen’s fierce loyalty to John Kennedy and the years they served together in Congress caught Dan Quayle by surprise (“Senator, you’re no John Kennedy!”). But it certainly didn’t go unnoticed by Bill Clinton, who appointed Bentsen Secretary of the Treasury.
* * *
DAVID Wilhelm was confirmed in January, 1993, as the chairman of the Democratic Party. As reported by the media, he was the youngest Democratic National Chairman “since the Kennedy era.”
* * *
BILL Clinton was the first nominee to appear at the Democratic Convention before his acceptance speech since John F. Kennedy.
* * *
KENNEDY and Clinton shared a common love and respect for Thomas Jefferson. Clinton once made the comment that as he gazes from the White House toward the Jefferson Memorial he wishes that Thomas Jefferson could come alive and talk to him about the problems he faces today.
Clinton began the inaugural week at Monticello. During the discussion that followed outside the home, one child asked Clinton how he would utilize Jefferson if he were alive today. Clinton first said that he would suggest to Vice President Gore that the two of them resign in favor of Jefferson. A moment later, however, Clinton amended that to say that he would ask Jefferson to be his Secretary of Education.
President Kennedy, giving a toast to a gathering of 49 Nobel Prize winners at the White House on April 29, 1962, was perhaps more profound but no less sincere: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.”
* * *
ON a state visit to Paris on May 31, 1961, Kennedy jokingly assumed a secondary role when he introduced himself at a news conference as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” Recently, President Clinton spoke at Santa Monica College to an audience that included students, as well as a number of show business celebrities. Clinton surveyed the crowd and got a laugh when he lightheartedly introduced Bill Cosby, “who makes me the second-most famous person in the room.”
* * *
MARCH 22, 1993: Newsweek Magazine. “Since his first Saturday radio address from an empty Oval Office was ‘kind of flat,’ aides are now packing the room with White House staffers, federal workers and their families. The technique worked like a charm. “He just punched the hell out of it,” says an aide. Clinton chatted up the crowd beforehand, showing off the desk that once belonged to John F. Kennedy and giving a quick history of the paintings and artifacts in the office.
* * *
JANUARY 2, 1993: Los Angeles Times. “President-elect Bill Clinton marked the new year with a touch football game on the beach Saturday.” As we all know, the Kennedys were famous for their own touch football games at the family compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. U.S. News & World Report noted that Bill Clinton was only 14 when Kennedy was elected and was playing touch football with a friend in Little Rock.
* * *
JOHN Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic President. Bill Clinton is the first President to have graduated from a Roman Catholic college (Washington’s D.C.’s Georgetown University), although Clinton, who entered college the year after Kennedy’s assassination, is a Baptist.
* * *
DURING the first Presidential debate, the October 19, 1992 issue of TIME Magazine observed: “As with John Kennedy (whom he shamelessly imitated by saying ‘We can do better and we must’), the lasting impression of Clinton was his vigorous, confident demeanor and his often bemused attitude toward Bush.” Kennedy’s lasting impression in his debates with Nixon in 1960 propelled him to victory that November.
* * *
ON November 5, 1992, USA Today noted: “Clinton, in the cadences of his voice, the wry humor, reminds many of President Kennedy… Like Kennedy, he delights in grappling with the media.” The Los Angeles Times reported on January 3, 1993, that “Bill Clinton inherits some of the same positives that were at the feet of Jack Kennedy in 1960.”
IT has happened only 20 times in the 204 years since Washington’s inauguration – a new President succeeding the leader of an opposing political party. On January 20, 1993, Democrat Clinton succeeded Republican George Bush. Exactly thirty-two years before him, Democrat John F. Kennedy succeeded Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
INTERESTING parallels exist between the political careers of Kennedy and Clinton. Both men were elected to important public offices at an early age. Kennedy was elected to Congress at 29, and to the Senate at 35, before becoming President at 43. Clinton, elected Governor of Arkansas at the age of 32, was the state’s youngest governor ever, and was elected to the Presidency when he was 46. Kennedy and Clinton were the second and third youngest Presidents, respectively.
* * *
IN 1963, at the time of their historic meeting in the White House’s Rose Garden, Kennedy was the same age that Clinton (46) would be during his Presidential run.
* * *
THOUGH a complete coincidence, B-i-l-l C-l-i-n-t-o-n and J-o-h-n K-e-n-n-e-d-y contain the same number of letters, both in the first and last names.
* * *
THE dawn of the Kennedy era was a wonderful time for Wall Street, at least early on, producing a Kennedy-style bull market. By May, 1993, only four months into Clinton’s term, the Dow Jones hit an all time high.
We have now reached a Clinton milestone – the first 100 days of his administration. Presidents are inevitably judged by events and deadlines, with the first 100 days serving as a barometer for the success or failure of a Presidency. By all accounts, President Clinton still has his work cut out for him, as his first 100 days have been plagued with problems – Waco, Bosnia and the budget, to name a few. As a consequence, the Clinton administration is facing its lowest approval ratings ever. According to a recent poll, only 36% of the public approves of Clinton’s handling of his job, a record low, going back 50 years, for a post-war President four months into his first term.
Arthur Schles[s]inger recently remarked that the first 100 days tell the people a good deal about a new President, and tell him a good deal about the people. Clinton’s steadily declining popularity is certainly telling him a lot about the mood of the American people, but we’re still having a hard time figuring him out. He has been characterized as unfocused, indecisive, over-cautious and evasive, among other things, and it’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s his own man, if he’s simply acting the part of President. Has Clinton been trying too hard to re-enact the Presidency of John Kennedy at the expense of being his own man? If JFK has been his role model during his first 100 days, then perhaps he’d be wise to change his strategy. We can only wait and see.