May 23, 2019

It Pays to Play Kennedy

“For the past six decades, Democrats have been mesmerized by the Kennedy style, like adult children searching for the forever-young father who left them before his time. The pressure for candidates to fit the Kennedy mold—in looks, style and political bearing—became so oppressive that the writer Garry Wills coined a term for it: “The Kennedy imprisonment.”

The generation of politicians that immediately followed John F. Kennedy—John Kerry, John Tunney and even Republicans like John Lindsay—tried so hard to emulate JFK that they enacted impersonations: fastening the top button of their suit jackets to flap in precisely the same patterns as his, chopping the air with their hands like he did, extending their necks to mimic his chin-in-the-air stance at the lectern. In more recent years, such candidates felt freer to adopt their own mannerisms but their political posture remained pure JFK: that of the young and earnest outsider, alone on the stage, a prince suffused in a golden aura of charisma.

Now, as the 2020 contenders emerge from the wings, the Kennedy ghost is alive again, mostly in the person of former Texas Rep. Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke. Unlike the JFK mannequins, he has chosen to ape the tousled Bobby variant of the Kennedy style, honed after Dallas, that of the surviving brother searching for meaning in a strange and violent world. He even shares Bobby Kennedy’s first two names. But the 46-year-old O’Rourke must compete with an even younger Kennedy clone—the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend (Ind.), Pete Buttigieg, who (naturally) won the JFK Library’s Profile in Courage essay contest in 2000 as a sweaty-palmed high school senior. A decade later, in 2015, he won the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award from the Kennedy School at Harvard.”

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