SOLOMON: Clinton and JFK -- Media Myth, R.I.P.
Five years ago, everywhere you turned, journalists were comparing Bill Clinton to John Kennedy.In the summer of 1992 -- when the Democratic National Convention showcased footage of a teenage Bill shaking hands with President Kennedy -- many news outlets proclaimed that manifest destiny was in the political air.The media hype escalated as soon as Clinton won the presidency a few months later. Newsweek was euphoric about "a film clip that made its way into a widely seen campaign ad: a beaming, 16-year-old Bill Clinton on a sun-drenched White House lawn, shaking the hand of his and his generation's idol, John F. Kennedy."With Clinton's victory, Newsweek declared, "the footage rises from mere advertising to the realm of prophetic history. For it documents JFK reaching across the years to a boy he did not know -- and to whom the torch of leadership now passes in an emphatic statement of America's desire for change." Camelot II became a media obsession. "Now the torch is being passed to the generation that was touched and inspired by Kennedy," Time magazine reported in mid-November 1992. "Indeed, the most memorable moment in the convention video about the man from Hope was the scene of the eager student being inspired by Kennedy's anointing touch."It's a sad commentary that so many journalists mouthed such bunkum with straight faces -- and that Americans didn't quickly laugh this grandiloquence out of the court of public opinion. Clinton and his top aides kept encouraging the JFK comparisons. And a lot of the press seemed happy to oblige. When the former Arkansas governor took his first extended holiday since moving into the White House, he went to the stretch of New England coastline made famous by John Kennedy. The vacation at Martha's Vineyard included several hours on a much- publicized luncheon cruise with a yacht-load of Kennedys. The New York Times coverage was typical on Aug. 25, 1993: "Thirty years ago, Bill Clinton the boy stood staring at John F. Kennedy, his hero, in the White House Rose Garden. Today, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and other members of the family welcomed Bill Clinton the president to the seas off the Massachusetts coast that his murdered predecessor loved so well." But analogies between Clinton and Kennedy faded from news media during the mid-1990s. President Clinton did not live up to the courageous JFK image.Ironically, neither did John Kennedy.The real President Clinton bears quite a resemblance to the real President Kennedy -- beholden to economic elites, unwilling to cross big business or challenge the Pentagon. After eight years in the White House, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell address on Jan. 17, 1961. The ex-general warned of "an immense military establishment and a large arms industry." He added that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."Like his hero JFK, Clinton shrugged off such concerns -- preferring to remain firmly in the pocket of the military- industrial complex. In that regard, as in many others, Clinton's presidency has been no profile in courage. These days, few journalists are comparing Bill Clinton to John Kennedy. That particular canard has worn out its welcome. But in medialand, the focus remains on personal styles and inside-the-Beltway maneuvers. Newer glib notions replace the cliches that have gone out of fashion.Of course, everyone knows that politicians try to feed contrived images to the media. But many journalists act as though it's their job to swallow the hype -- and prompt the public to do the same.Americans have long been skeptical -- even scathing -- about elected officials in Washington. "Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a congressman can," Mark Twain commented. In 1897, he wrote: "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."But rather than just condemning politicians as a group -- or praising one of them as the bearer of a heroic torch -- we would do much better to scrutinize exactly whose interests they are serving. That way, we'll be far less likely to fall for the next media myths.