In his exhaustively researched book, The Master of the Senate, Robert Caro shows a Lyndon Johnson who used his service in the Senate as the means by which he would achieve national office. His goal was the presidency, but in order to have any hope of being considered for that office, he, as a Southerner, would have to break free of the chain which held all Southern-bloc politicians in office but kept them from rising onto the national stage: the entanglements of racial politics and the denial of civil rights to blacks in their home states.
LBJ, in his first term, would so master the intricacies of the Senate rules that, by his second term, he would break nearly all the precedents of seniority and become the majority leader. His domination of his fellow senators – including his fellow Southerners – was so complete, his handle on power so iron-fisted, his ambition so ruthless, that he was able to make the Senate do what it had never done before, and which its Southern bloc had vowed never to do, and was violently opposed to doing even as they did it, which was to pass legislation which removed a few of the barriers keeping blacks from exercising their right to vote. It was a tiny first step, but for Johnson, by doing not what he thought was right so much as what he thought had to be done, he broke the chain which would have held him back personally and, as a byproduct to his ambition, began the slow breaking up of the legislative logjam which had stopped the civil rights movement cold. The first lesson to be learned, that Johnson would act for the good of others only when it served his personal ambitions, is not meant in any way to obscure the second lesson: that he was an unstoppable force who swept to the side all who stood in his way.
John Kerry says that he should be president because he knows how to create alliances and build consensus. The voter may reasonably ask: where has there been demonstrated evidence of this capability? If there is a much-noted theme to his twenty years in the Senate, it is that he has voted against one weapons program after another. If he can justify that record, he has not done so; but more to the point in the present instance, this question must be raised: if he felt so strongly about the need to curtail defense spending, where is the record of alliances built, and consensus joined, which brought about the defeat of those bills? All that we can say with certainty is that he voted against them, but they passed anyway.
If there are those who are willing to forgive John Kerry for some weakness on defense, but would vote for him because of his claimed ability to forge alliances, then should we not see a record in the Senate, as we saw with Les Aspin in the House, of Kerry’s having challenged the military to justify their claims on our tax dollars? Shouldn’t we see a record, as with Johnson, of Kerry’s having corralled his fellow senators, prodded them, challenged them, organized them, marshaled them, dared them to defy him, made them defeat those bills? It doesn’t take much organizational ability to show up on the floor of the Senate and cast a solitary vote, nor does it take much political courage for a senator from Massachusetts to vote against a defense spending bill. And so again, the best that we can say of John Kerry’s senatorial record is that it cost him next to nothing to achieve…nothing.
Kerry tells us that we should vote for him because he will prove more expert at forging alliances, when, in that august body where the ability to forge alliances is the proven path to power, over a period of twenty years he forged none of any consequence. This is the man who would bend France – and all of Europe - to his will.
Some may say, ‘But why hold that against him when the other JFK had as scant a record?’ There are two answers to that question. The first is that Kennedy never viewed the Senate as the place where he wanted to make his mark, nor did he have to prove his liberal credentials the way that Johnson did. The Senate was hardly more than a runway walk for him: elected to it in 1952, by 1956 he was already making his debut at the national convention. After that he was running for president.
And so we come at last to the more important difference between the two JFKs: the way in which a president looks at the challenges that face the nation. Kerry speaks of “plans.” He says that he has “a plan,” that it is a better “plan” than the Bush “plan”, and therefore he – or, rather, his “plan” - deserves your vote.
Herein lies the difference: when Kennedy was sworn into office in January, 1961, he did not speak of a “plan.” He spoke, instead, of a “long twilight struggle.” He understood, as Kerry does not, that when a nation is engaged in war against a widespread, insidious enemy, there really is no way to know what the enemy is thinking, or where he will strike next, or how long the battle will go on.
“Plans” are for annuity salesmen. Those who are called upon to lead the fight in a protracted and dangerous struggle against a pernicious foe ought not to think in terms of plans so much as they should think in terms of commitment. And so this was America’s commitment, as articulated by Kennedy: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Neither Kennedy nor anybody else could foresee the demise of communism, or how such an end would come about. But it was the national commitment, not the particulars of any plan, which saw us through to the end. And so those who say that the liberation of Iraq is a failure because it was not conducted flawlessly should be prepared to submit to the generals in the Pentagon the itinerary of our enemy, so that they can devise the perfect plan.
And it is Kennedy, not Kerry, whose view reflects the surer grasp of American history; for it is in Kennedy’s inaugural address that we hear faint echoes of these words: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” For Lincoln, as for Kennedy, it was the commitment to a struggle whose course and outcome was uncertain which transcended the details of any plan. For Lincoln, the difference between a plan and a commitment was the difference between a McClellan and a Grant.
And so if you set aside the superficial similarities between the second JFK and the first, and if you ignore the superficial dissimilarities between the first JFK and the current president, you will see – easily, and with stunning clarity – that it is only the president, and not his challenger, who has a record to run upon: the president’s ability to commit the nation to the necessary struggle is manifest and proven; the challenger’s record of successful alliances, on the other hand, is non-existent.
Finally, it is only the president – not the challenger – whose point of view reflects a commitment, not just a plan: a commitment to bear the burden, to pay the price, to meet the hardship, to support the friend, to oppose the foe. It is the president – not the challenger – whose approach to the challenges of the day is the more closely aligned with those who waged the lonely struggles of the past.