The “New JFK”: Nothing Great to Be



font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";background:white”>Sharpton’s analogy was more substantively correct than he knew, but in ways he would not likely go far to admit.

“Pragmatic Liberalism in the Service of Corporate Capitalism”

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";background:white”>The major problem with Sharpton’s comparison is his instinctive liberal assumption that it’s a good thing to be “the new John F. Kennedy.”


line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>More than a decade before neoliberal Democrats emerged to explicitly steer the Democratic Party to the corporate center, JFK’s frequently declared sympathies for the poor and working class took a back seat in his White house to “the real determinants of policy: political calculation and economic doctrine.” As Mirroff explained, political calculation “led Kennedy to appease the corporate giants and their allies in government.” Economic doctrine “told him that the key to the expansion and health of the economy was the health and expansion of those same corporate giants. The architects of Kennedy’s ‘New Economics’ liked to portray it as the technically sophisticated and politically neutral management of a modern industrial economy. It is more accurately portrayed as a pragmatic liberalism in the service of corporate capitalism” (Miroff, 1976) Further:  

“His wage guidelines, and other efforts at terminating labor-management conflict over the distribution of income, fit neatly with business’s longstanding objective of holding wage costs steady. His liberalization of depreciation allowances furnished business with a tax break which it had sought unsuccessfully from the Eisenhower administration. His proposed reduction in corporate income and personal income taxes in the higher brackets approached tax reductions earlier proposed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Corporate executives may not have had Kennedy’s ear, but the functional result was not so different than if they had. Economic doctrine and political calculation were enough to make him respond more often to business desires than to those of the economic constituencies that actually supported him” (Miroff, 1976).

The regressive nature of JFK’s “New Economics’ was cloaked by his recurrent, much-publicized spats with certain members of the business community (the executives of U.S. Steel above all), his repeated statements of concern for labor and the poor, and his claim to advance a purely “technical” and “pragmatic” economic agenda that elevated “practical management” and administrative expertise above the “grand warfare of ideologies” (Miroff, 1976).

Caucasian-Friendly Caution and Calculation 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Subsequent silly and elitist “Mississippi Burning” revisionism notwithstanding, the Kennedy administration was no great friend of the struggle for black equality. Its response to the Freedom Movement was dominated by the tension between two competing political calculations: (i) the threat of politically alienating white Americans, above all traditionally Democratic white Southerners; (ii) the risk of losing Third World hearts and minds in the supposed U.S. struggle to advance “freedom and democracy,” falsely conflated with capitalism and subjugation to U.S. influence, against supposed Soviet-sponsored “communism” (national independence and social justice in the “developing world”). The experience and struggles of black Americans were not an especially relevant concern. When southern racist authorities managed to defeat the black struggle for equality without politically problematic and embarrassing violence (as in Albany Georgia, in 1962), the Kennedy administration was happy to withhold protection from King and his fellow activists. Along the way, the Kennedy brothers were inordinately obsessed with alleged Communist connections to King and the CRM and approved racist FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s regular and relentless police state surveillance, smearing, and infiltration of the movement. (Sitkoff, 1981; Garrow, 1986)

Deadly Imperial Arrogance   

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Referring to the U.S. as “watchtower on the walls of [global] freedom,” JFK undertook numerous provocative actions meant to overthrow the popular revolutionary government of Cuba. He imposed, equipped, and otherwise supported numerous Latin-American dictatorships and oligarchies in the name of “democracy.” As Noam Chomsky noted in his important 1993 study Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War and US Political Culture, “One of the most significant legacies left by the [Kennedy] Administration was its 1962 decision to shift the mission of the [U.S.-funded, equipped, and trained]Latin American military from ‘hemispheric defense’ to ‘internal security,’” leading, in the words of Kennedy’s top Latin American counter-insurgency planer (Charles Maechling) to “direct [U.S.] complicity” in “the methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads” The shift to deadly internal repression was a natural corollary to Kennedy’s export-promoting” Alliance for Progress “development program,” which primarily benefited Latin American elites while drastically increased Latin American unemployment (Chomsky, 1993). 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>A U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile (overthrowing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973) was left to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. It might well have occurred under Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson but for the Kennedy CIA’s effort to subvert the 1964 Chilean elections since, as Kennedy’s National Security Council (NSC) explained, “We are not prepared to risk a Socialist or FRAP [Allende] victory, for fear of nationalization of U.S. investments.”(Chomsky, 1993) 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Meanwhile, Kennedy “raised the level of [U.S.] attack [on Indochina] from international terrorism to outright aggression in 1961-62,” justifying the use of U.S. airpower to napalm social revolutionaries, defoliate Vietnamese countryside, and “kill a lot of innocent peasants” (Roger Hillsman) with the false claims that “we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless [Soviet-Marxist] conspiracy” and that failure to stop “Communism” in Vietnam would open the gates to Soviet world domination. Contrary to subsequent myths trumpeted by JFK-worshippers like Oliver Stone and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Kennedy had no intent of pulling back from his mass-murderous assault until full U.S “victory” was attained (Chomsky, 1993).

One Minute to Midnight 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Considerably more aghast than Kennedy was at the prospect of thermonuclear obliteration (JFK coolly calculated the chances for WWIII at 50%), Khrushchev did far more than his American counterpart to end the crisis. So for that matter did Soviet submarine flotilla commander Vasili Arkhipov. Under the waters of the western mid-Atlantic Ocean, Arkhipov blocked the surrounded and exhausted Soviet submarine captain Valentin Savitsky’s determination to launch a tactical nuclear torpedo at the U.S. Navy in the early evening of Saturday, October 27, 1962. Arkhipov’s fateful action came as Kennedy continued to dither in responding to Khrushchev’s offer much earlier in the day (at 10:18 AM) to dismantle and withdraw Russia’s missiles if the U.S. agreed not to invade Cuba and to remove its nuclear Jupiter missiles from Turkey (obsolete weapons the U.S. already planned to scrap). The sticking point for Kennedy and his team was that the U.S. would appear to have been humiliated and countermanded by the Soviets – and by global public opinion, which seemed likely to perceive Khrushchev’s proposed trade as elementarily fair – if it publicly agreed to take down its warheads in Turkey (Dobbs, 2008). 


  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Arkhipov pre-empted the firing of a tactical nuclear weapon from an ailing diesel Soviet submarine south of Bermuda
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>A U.S. U2 spy was destroyed, its pilot (Rudolph Anderson) killed, over Cuba, by a Soviet missile.
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”> Another US pilot (Chuck Maultsby) mistakenly crossed into Soviet airspace, sending Russian fighter jets into the skies.
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>The U.S. conducted a massive nuclear bomb test in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Dozens of U.S. bombers loaded with high-yield thermonuclear weapons roamed the skies at all times; their pilots had full technical capacity to launch World War III on their own accord.
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>The full giant U.S. giant nuclear arsenal was place on the highest and highly accident-prone alert, with 162 nuclear missiles and 1,2000 airplanes carrying 2,858 nuclear weapons “cocked” and “ready to fire.” (Dobbs. 2008).

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Behind ExComm fears that Khrushchev’s offer amounted to “diplomatic blackmail” lay the real Kennedy administration determination: threatening to blow up the world in order to defend and preserve the United States' right to keep on the Soviet Union’s border missiles they had already decided to take down. That’s some interesting context for the concluding sentence of Michael Dobbs’ widely heralded account: “The real good fortune is that men as sane and level-headed as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev occupied the White House and the Kremlin in October 1962.”(Dobbs, 2008) 

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>While its hard to see a nuclear crisis like October 1962 in his future (even though he has done his part to provoke Russia around missile-related issues and other matters), President Obama has like President Kennedy moved in doctrinally and politically imposed corporate and imperial grooves as Kennedy, proving along with George W. Bush that Miroff’s assessment of U.S. presidents, both “liberal” and “conservative” (“ font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>There is nothing new about the Obama-Kennedy analogy, of course. The black Seattle-based Left poet and activist sensed the dark side of the Kennedy-Obama analogy from the start. The Obama candidacy, Hureaux noted nearly a year before the Obama White House ascendency, was about “restor[ing] faith in the imperial project” by putting an eloquent black leader at its nominal head, to function as a “JFK in sepia.” As Hureaux observed in the comments section attached to a haunting Dissident Voice essay by Juan Santos, titled “Barack Obama and the End of Racism:”

“I’m watching all kinds of people who I’d previously thought had some critical thinking skills cave under this Obamania business. I had a hunch this was coming when I watched his speech at the [Democratic Party] convention four years ago, my wife and I both sat and took it in and looked at each other and said, almost word for word, ‘He’s good, he’s very good.’ The rakish JFK style jabs, the clearly studied rhetorical grace. What better gift to the empire than JFK in sepia? All last year, numerous discussions with people from the old new left who told us, ‘He’ll never get a shot at it because of racist US etc.,’ to which we maintained, ‘But what better figure to have out there than one to restore faith in the imperial project, but someone with a black face?”(Santos, 2008)

Last Spring, the eminent left historian Perry Anderson noted of Obama that “Once invested with the authority of office, looks and aplomb have generated a celebrity ruler—colour relaying style to yield a JFK for a multi-cultural age, attracting much the same kind of engouement in the local intelligentsia and its counterparts abroad…Attempts by enthusiasts to talk of the [Obama] administration’s achievement as a second New Deal miss the comparator. Its egalitarian sheen belongs with the callisthenic gauze of the New Frontier.” (Anderson, 2013).

white”>bent [his] strongest efforts, not to alter, but to preserve America’s dominant institutions.” A classic example is health care, which he managed to keep under private financial and corporate command with a “market-oriented” “reform” that keeps the giant insurance and drug firms and their Wall Street backers in core cost-inflating, deficit-fueling control of the nation’s health care system. 

“Really Good At Killing People” 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>In a fascinating statement on the part of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama rightly told his aides last year that drones make him “really good at killing people”[4]. He had a point. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the CIA drone program has conducted 378 strikes in its ten-year history. Of those attacks, 326 (87 percent) were ordered under the current president and are classified as “Obama strikes.” The total number of people killed by drones is estimated to be between 2,528 and 3,648. Civilian casualties are conservatively estimated to have run as high as 948 [5], making the president “really good at killing” noncombatants.

 Defiling History 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Sharpton was right to note that the far better 1960s Obama analogy is JFK (and even LBJ), not MLK. But if he really grasped or cared about the full extent of the differences between the presidents (both dead and living) and the activist, if he really sensed how vile those presidents and the system they represent (including its deceptive “one-party, two-faction candidate-producing mechanism” [Chomsky, 1993]) are, he would not have been content merely to leave “the new John F. Kennedy” off the list of invitees to his August 24th rally. He would also and more importantly have led a march against the August 28th Obama-Carter-Clinton commemoration/desecration, which so defiled the memory and meaning of the March on Washington. 

Paul Street is the author of many books including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010). His next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (2014).

Secondary Sources 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1991) 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Noam Chomsky, What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World (New York: Metropolitan, 2007) 

Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2008). 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Bruce Miroff, Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (New York: Longman, 1976) 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1980 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981)

Selected Endnotes 

1. http://m.staugustine.com/news/national-news/2013-08-27/king-anniversary-puts-spotlight-obama-civil-rights

2. http://washingtonexaminer.com/al-sharpton-obama-is-the-new-kennedy-because-of-dr.-king/article/2534813


4. Jay Busbee, “New Book: Obama Told Aides that Drones Make Him ‘Really Good at Killing People,’ “ Yahoo News (November 4, 2013), http://news.yahoo.com/new-book–obama-told-aides-that-drones-make-him–really-good-at-killing-people–144734667.html


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