Conjuring Camelot

In speeches by many of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, two names keep coming up: George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy. It's no surprise that the candidates keep mentioning Bush -- after all, he's the man they're trying to defeat. But why are the Democrats invoking the name of a president who was killed 40 years ago?

It's partly because Kennedy still enjoys high poll numbers, said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The Camelot era still evokes a feeling of nostalgia from baby boomers, who came of age during the early 1960s. And more recent Democratic presidents -- namely Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- are saddled with more negatives than Kennedy. "If you're going to recall a name to rally the troops, what better name can you use?" Hess asked.

So what are the candidates saying about Kennedy? Here are a few examples from the last two weeks:

Former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.): "Some in the Democratic Party claim that a candidate who questioned the war cannot lead the party in the great national debate that lies ahead. I would remind them that during the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy took on the hawks among the joint chiefs of staff, as well as the 'me-too-ers' in Congress." (June 25, Council on Foreign Relations)

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.): "John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan argued for tax cuts as an incentive for people to work harder. Americans work hard, and the government shouldn't punish them when they do." (June 17, Georgetown University)

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.): "Forty-two years ago, President Kennedy announced the Apollo Project -- to achieve the unfathomable goal of sending an American to the moon, a goal that couldn't have been achieved without the invention of hydrogen fuel cells." (June 17, Silicon Valley Manufacturers Group)

Kennedy's broad appeal -- note that each of the candidates used his name to promote different issues -- has proven attractive to other candidates as well. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has reminded voters that he and Kennedy have the same initials (both have middle names that begin with "F"). And Kerry has secured the support of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the former president's brother.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Kennedy, called the attention to the former president "flattering." Candidates often compare themselves to revered party figures as they try to appeal to voters. But if they really want to lay claim to Kennedy's legacy, they must not only invoke his policies and words but his spirit. Kennedy gave Americans the sense that, with him in the White House, anything was possible. He fascinated them.

We know now, thanks to a new autobiography by Robert Dallek, that much of Camelot was a myth. Kennedy came across as vigorous, but he was in fact on many medications. He had an affair with a White House intern (though that revelation hasn't damaged him in the public's eyes, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal did Clinton). But the point is that Kennedy was able to excite voters. We didn't have enough of that in the last election (a Social Security lockbox isn't exactly going to get anyone's heart racing), and we have yet to see it in the 2004 race.

There are many important questions to ask about what Bush and his administration have done in the last three years, among them: Did they mislead us on Iraq? Why is a tax cut their solution to every economic problem? Are they stacking the courts with right-wing ideologues bent on a narrow social agenda? The Democratic candidates -- and the American people -- should ask these questions, and they deserve answers to them. But the candidates must also give voters a reason to choose them next year besides simply outlining what Bush has done wrong; they must offer voters a compelling vision for what this country can become.

It's what Ronald Reagan did when he talked about the "shining city on the hill." It's what Bill Clinton did when he presented himself as "the man from Hope." It's a message that says, "Not only will your life be better four years from now when I'm president, but things you never thought possible will happen." It's what separated the presidential candidates we remember from those we don't. So as Democrats continue to quote Kennedy, they should remember not to merely repeat his words but also to practice what he preached.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.