Later this November, the United States will mark the 60th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Cut down in his prime, the martyred president has continued to haunt the nation he governed. In the ensuing decades since his demise, there has been no shortage of politicians who have tried to turn stylistic resemblances (a youthful gait, tousled hair, a love of rhetorical flourishes) into a claim to be JFK’s heir. Countless politicians of both major American political parties have played this game: Gary Hart, Dan Quayle, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, among others.
Quayle’s attempt to draw a JFK parallel during a vice presidential debate in 1988 earned a famous rebuke from his Democratic counterpart, Lloyd Bentsen, who crisply retorted, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
In giving the Republican response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders became the latest politician to try to conjure up the old Kennedy magic. She did so by evoking the theme of generational change and by deliberately alluding to JFK’s famous inaugural address. The impetus for her comparison is Biden’s age. When JFK was inaugurated, he was the youngest American president ever elected, and replaced Dwight Eisenhower, at the time the oldest American ever to be president. In her response, Sanders noted, “At 40, I’m the youngest governor in the country. At 80, he’s the oldest president in American history.” To underscore her status as a rising star and pathbreaker, she added, “I’m the first woman to lead my state.”
Sanders also paid tribute to the civil rights struggles of the Eisenhower and Kennedy era by praising the Little Rock Nine, the pioneers who desegregated Arkansas education starting in 1957 in the teeth of white supremacist violence. But Sanders did so in order to draw an invidious contrast between the noble struggles of the past and the present danger of critical race theory.
In his inaugural speech, Kennedy proclaimed that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and 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.” Sanders called to mind both the phrasing of this speech as well as the emphasis on “a new generation…born in this century.” According to Sanders:
It’s time for a new generation to lead. This is our moment. This is our opportunity. A new generation born in the waning decades of the last century shaped by economic booms and stock market busts. Forged by the triumph of the Cold War and the tragedy of 9/11. A generation brimming with passion and new ideas to solve age-old problems, a generation moored to our deepest values and oldest traditions, yet unafraid to challenge the present order and find a better way forward.
The Kennedy-esque cadences of Sanders’s speech should be seen as an outreach to the political center. As the recent silly panic over the Chinese spy balloon reminds us, many in the political elite of both parties are hoping that polarization can be overcome and a new era of unity created by reviving the spirit of the Cold War. Throughout her speech, Sanders direly warned of foreign threats from China, Russia, and the Middle East, while praising the national unity displayed by soldiers.
But her gestures at reheated Cold War centrism only amounted to a pallid facade for parts of Sanders’s speech (notably in her implicit celebration of feminism, and overt reference to the civil rights victories of the 1960s). This thin centrist patina was overwhelmed by the partisan bile that made up the most memorable and pointed sections of the speech. The stately syntax of JFK was easy to miss, given that Sanders also mimicked the culture war crudeness of Donald Trump (never mentioned by name in her speech, but praised for his alleged success in economics and national security).
Sanders described Biden as “the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.”
“In the radical left’s America,” she added, “Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country.” Citing her own achievements, she said, “Upon taking office just a few weeks ago I signed Executive Orders to ban CRT, racism, and indoctrination in our schools, eliminate the use of the derogatory term ‘Latinx’ in our government, repealed COVID orders and said never again to authoritarian mandates and shutdowns.” The only outreach to centrists in terms of domestic policies was her claim that she was raising pay for teachers.
According to Sanders, “The choice is between normal or crazy.” What she doesn’t consider is that candidates advocating right-wing cultural strife have won the popular vote only once in the last eight presidential elections. The one exception was George W. Bush’s victory in 2004, where he was aided by the still-potent memory of 9/11 and the ensuing surge of nationalism and militarism. That would indicate that an abiding majority rejects Sanders’s idea of “normal.”
On foreign policy, Sanders offered a scary scenario where the United States only faces foes that need to be confronted, rather than rivals to negotiate with and allies to cultivate. On domestic policy, she offered another version of permanent war: the endless culture war of shoring up traditional white Christian hegemony against sexual and racial minorities. The subtext of militarism casts a sinister light on her playacting of JFK: She’s harking back to the mobilized society of the early Cold War.
As an Irish Catholic, Biden also likes to invoke Kennedy. And there’s a real danger that Biden’s pursuit of great-power competition with China and Russia could revive the Cold War—although, in strong contrast to Sanders, Biden doesn’t discount the need for diplomacy.
But the dominant theme of Biden’s speech wasn’t warfare but domestic repair. For the bulk of his address, Biden called to mind not the crusading internationalism of JFK but the kitchen-sink domestic politics of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson.
Biden decried the fact that “for decades, the middle class has been hollowed out.… Too many good-paying manufacturing jobs moved overseas. Factories closed down. Once-thriving cities and towns that many of you represent became shadows of what they used to be.” He called for policies to challenge these trends. This emphasis on economic policy stands in sharp contrast to Sanders’s relentless focus on culture war.
There’s much to criticize in Joe Biden—but there’s no denying that there is a fundamental difference between his vision of the world and that of the Republicans. Biden presented a program of national unity restored through domestic repair. All Sanders and other Republicans can offer is a long twilight struggle of undying culture wars, where Americans are called upon to bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe—so that the word “Latinx” is never heard in the land.