History Repeating: 2016 Sanders vs. Clinton Evoking 1960 JFK vs. LBJ

On Tuesday, April 5, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont won the Wisconsin Democratic primary over fellow presidential contender Hillary Clinton, former New York senator and secretary of state, by a margin of 56.6% to 43.1%. 

Wisconsin’s primary could prove pivotal for Senator Sanders as he tries to oust Clinton, considered by many to be the Democratic front-runner. It was pivotal, too, for the young Massachusetts senator in 1960, John F. Kennedy, who carried the state in unlikely fashion and went on to triumph over rival Lyndon B. Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader from Texas, and assume the presidency thereby establishing a new era of American politics and enshrining the former as the insignia of unrealized political potential.

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President Kennedy (left) & Vice President Johnson (center)/ Image via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum [public domain]

Just prior to the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Senate Majority Leader and presidential heir apparent Lyndon B. Johnson hired a private investigator to expose the potentially incriminating health records of up-and-coming White House contender Senator John F. Kennedy.

For much of his life, and up to this point and beyond, Kennedy suffered from chronic illnesses, most notably Addison’s Disease, which left his back in an aching and rigid condition.

In fact, Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage was written while he recovered from lumbar fusion surgery which included the insertion of a metal plate to stabilize his spine.

Johnson’s scheme was devised as a last-ditch attempt to quell Kennedy’s escalating popularity and steamrolling campaign.

Though Kennedy vehemently denied his recurring pain and lingering ailments, he emerged from the ring against the heavyweight Johnson with Ali-like finesse.

Health

Similarly, earlier this year and extending into the twilight of 2015, Hillary Clinton pressed Bernie Sanders to release his own health records to plant the seed of doubt in the minds of voters as to whether the latter can be an effective President — possibly the oldest ever elected.

The dichotomy clearly visible between Clinton and Sanders is reminiscent of Johnson and Kennedy, eerily so if you happen to be a Clinton supporter, and the parallels extend further than just physical and emotional well being.

Despite a much deeper-seated career in politics, Sanders is looked at in this race as the upstart, the usurper to Barack Obama’s former Secretary of State who is conversely looked at in this race as the already-tapped successor.

Johnson was threatened by Kennedy, that threat being the catalyst for the former’s political imposturing, and it’s perhaps for this reason Clinton similarly sank to a level of conniving, chiding Sanders for his age and seemingly reluctance to unveil his records in a manner described by Sanders’s campaign manager as “one of the most desperate and vile attacks imaginable.”

I won’t linger on this issue because in this day and age, all candidates release their health records at some point — Sanders did it, as did Clinton and even Donald Trump.

But the odorous cloud of desperation has yet to fully clear.

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Senator Sanders/ Image via Bernie 2016

The Treatment

Johnson’s perception of being next in line to inherit the presidency was also fueled by his stronghold relationship with party bosses. At the time, it was these often crooked overseers who pressed their influence on party delegates who would then cast their ballots for candidate who kept these bosses in their pocket.

Clinton boasts an unwavering alliance with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Congresswoman and Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Schultz was Clinton’s campaign co-chair during her unsuccessful 2008 bid, and has continued to throw her support, and much of the weight of the Democratic party, behind Clinton.

Much like Johnson, whose influence was so profound it has been notoriously dubbed the “Johnson Treatment,” Clinton has leveraged her relationship with Wasserman Schultz to garner even more party influence. For example, in 2013 Schultz tapped Amy Dacey as the CEO of the Democratic National Committee who has since gone on record stating “the party’s female leaders really want to make a woman the next president.”

There’s also the fact that Wasserman Schultz, viewed by Sanders proponents as a Clinton henchwoman, has scheduled fewer than usual Democratic debates, and at times of low viewership, in hopes of protecting Clinton; she blocked DNC campaign database access when a Sanders staffer gained access to Clinton campaign data by fault of the vendor; and she lifted a ban that allows the DNC to receive funds from lobbyists and Super PACs — a prohibitive measure that was enacted by Obama to change the finance-heavy D.C. culture.

The New York Times said “Allowing PAC and lobbyist donations to the joint fund-raising committee was something that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign encouraged.” A staple argument for Sanders against Clinton is the amount of campaign donations and paid speaking engagements by corporate entities.

Kennedy relied on his charm and rhetoric in order to outflank Johnson, much as Sanders is doing now. Though he’s not known for being particularly suave or charismatic, Sanders is relaying a message that strongly resonates with his growing voter base. Like Kennedy, Sanders is able to forge and nurture connections with voters on a sentimental level. And both accomplished this with a distinct voice and dialect as opposed to influencing, and even manipulating, subordinates much like Johnson and Clinton are able to do.

Religion

Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected President and Sanders could be the first Jew elected President. For Kennedy, though, his attachment to Catholicism was a difficult hindrance to shake. Though Sanders is not being condemned for being a Jew, much has been made of his unorthodox faith, which is essentially “that we’re all in this together.”

Catholicism was a stigma Kennedy found difficult to rid himself of but he once stood before a group of Protestant ministers. With his wit and charm he said “I’m sure that I have made no converts to my church,” but the heart of his message beat with conviction.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said. “And this is the kind of America I fought for in the South Pacific and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might have a divided loyalty, that we did not believe in liberty, or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened, I quote, ‘the freedoms for which our forefathers died.’”

The response was a standing ovation.

The public and mass media seem confounded by Sanders’s reaction to questions about religion. He appears ambiguous, if not standoffish, due in large part to his admittedly broad “all in this together” philosophy.

The more the subject is touched upon, however, the more it seems to reverberate among those who question his faith. Sanders has a near monopoly on Millennial democrats, who are increasingly averse to religion. As one NYU professor surmised, Millennials have had a think-for-yourself mentality instilled in them by their Baby Boomer parents, which can be translated to the notion of separation of church and state.

“I want to be treated with dignity and respect, and I want other people to be treated with dignity and respect,” Sanders told the Washington Post. “I think it is important that a sense of morality be part of our politics.”

At the sheer base of Sanders’s beliefs, whether an acceptance of a higher power or lack thereof, is the so-called ‘Golden Rule’ which can be applied in essence to any religion or any governance.

Jewish, Agnostic, or Atheist, it’s Sanders’s ability to compartmentalize religion and politics, to put above all else the welfare of the people of this country, that puts him on par with Kennedy in this regard.

While Clinton has made no secret of her own Methodist belief, it has not been placed under a microscope the way it has for Sanders. Clinton, too, believes in separation of church and state.

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Hillary Clinton/ Image via U.S. Embassy (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Media Caricature

After Kennedy secured the Democratic nomination, his most widely wielded weapon of choice was television.

Through that medium, Kennedy was able to flaunt his looks, his charisma, and statesmanlike demeanor. His composure outshined the awkward, bumbling Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, in the first ever televised debate. Those who watched thought Kennedy triumphed while those who listened via radio thought it was Nixon.

Bernie Sanders is hardly as outwardly cool as Kennedy was but he plays up the caricature of himself to a tee and is similarly in the driver’s seat of the next emerging media platform, social media.

With a booming voice accentuated by a Brooklyn accent, the look of a disheveled mad scientist and a curmudgeonly persona, Sanders is viewed as a stubborn grandfatherly figure, the kind of elder whose bluntness and brashness are actually his most endearing qualities.

Sanders also has his finger on the pulse of social media the way Kennedy did television. Obama is often credited as being the first to employ social media as a campaign tool to connect with the younger demographic.

Though Sanders is regularly overshadowed in the mainstream media, he’s able to capitalize on  social platforms, the most recent of which was his bizarre encounter with his eventual winged mascot.

When a bird landed on his podium during a campaign event, the Twittersphere ignited a firestorm of enjoyment and adoration, the kind of which pulsates throughout social media circles.

Sanders is also known to have received a stampede of followers during and after political debates. His status as a relative unknown, at least in comparison to Clinton, is one that prompts viewers to type his name into search engines. If the information received from these searches doesn’t captivate the searcher at first, it’s likely the images and videos Sanders shares over his social accounts does.

Politico noted after a debate in early March, Sanders “overcame Clinton to become the most followed Democratic candidate.”

For better or for worse, Johnson was viewed as a man who could wear many hats. Historian Randall Woods noted that Johnson could be, at any given time, at any given moment, “Johnson the Son of the Tenant Farmer, Johnson the Great Compromiser, Johnson the All-Knowing, Johnson the Humble, Johnson the Warrior, Johnson the Dove, Johnson the Romantic, Johnson the Hard-Headed Pragmatist, Johnson the Preserver of Traditions, Johnson the Crusader for Social Justice, Johnson the Magnanimous, [or] Johnson the Vindictive.”

Instead of appealing to any of the audiences these particular characters targeted, Johnson’s mask wearing only alienated them.

John Chancellor noted, as per Woods, “He would send out all kinds of wrong signals to the people.”

For Clinton, who’s also trying to project multiple voices to multiple constituent groups, she comes off as disingenuous to the point of being barbed about it by comedians.

Saturday Night Live went so far as to lampoon her messaging as of late, which has come to sound so much like the Sanders campaign that the sketch comedy giant filmed a spoof Clinton campaign ad in which she literally turns into Sanders.

The Torch

Johnson’s particular brand of politics is of the old school: it involved pressure, pretense and persuasion.

Kennedy was not completely untouched by these methods but he was able to keep his campaign, and the American people, looking forward.

He embodied a new generation, personified the future, and built the foundation of his campaign on change for the better.

Hillary Clinton, in accepting corporate donations, making pacts with party politicos, and revising her message to better suit the interests of whichever specific groups she may be addressing at any time, is in league with Johnson.

Sanders has preached change from the onset of his crusade, never once altering his stance to hold corporations accountable, tax the highest earners, provide social relief to the under-resourced, educate the masses, make campaign finance ironclad, combat global warming producers, adapt to climate change effects, and ensure equal rights for all.

Winning would be a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch to, in Kennedy’s own words, “a new generation of Americans… unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that Clinton would perpetuate the status quo — a government gridlocked by special interests. Though she’s pledged to remain independent-minded despite corporate donations, history has shown us that the entity which donates the most benefits the most, whether with Citizens United, gun lobbying, or the fossil fuel industry.

Kennedy, of course, was no saint when it came to fundraising. He used his father’s influence in show business, relationship with Frank Sinatra, and fortune to finance his campaign, as well as the breadth of influence garnered by his father’s political connections and high powered friends.

But Kennedy’s campaign always kept an eye toward the future — equal rights for minorities, most notably women and African Americans; space age technology; world peace — as a counterbalance. As the harbinger of a new era,, Kennedy straddled the generational line with one foot in the past and another swinging forward.

Looking Ahead

It’s human nature to derive patterns and parallels of people and instances in order to make better sense of them. Perhaps that’s the case in this particular scenario.

But it’s undeniable that in many ways history is renewing itself. And those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. For Hillary Clinton, that may signal her likely last shot at being President is doomed.

It could be that this is where the evocations of Kennedy vs. Johnson end with Sanders vs. Clinton. If we keep seeing, however, the reflection of that fateful race more than half a century ago, one has to be curious as to whether today’s contest will continue on the same path as that of 1960.

Will Clinton fall to a rising dynamo? Will Sanders tap her to be his running mate and, if so, will she accept? Could it be that Clinton ultimately takes the roundabout route to the White House, by way of the unappealing avenue of ascension, and subsequently another campaign? Would she be willing to take up causes championed by Sanders the way Johnson did Kennedy with the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society?

It’s still a long road to November, one with California coastline twists and turns that could eventually derail Sanders, Clinton or even both.

All the while it’s important to keep an eye on where the past becomes the present and whether the future will be completely new.

Kennedy said, “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”

Who, what and when was that idea? Who, what and when will that idea be?

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