Parallels in history and hope: 1960 vs. 2008

“The torch has been passed to a new generation…”

“The torch has been passed to a new generation…”

Echoes from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address resonate today as our nation again unites behind a young leader who brings style, energy and hope to a country full of fear and uncertainty.

President-elect Barack Obama has laid claim to a mantle of expectations so tall their like has not been seen for decades.

For some who noted quietly JFK’s sudden passing 45 years ago this past Saturday, the 1960 campaign for the presidency between Kennedy and Richard Nixon and 2008’s campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain draw parallels only history — or those who have lived it — can appreciate.

Kennedy, like Obama, brought eloquence and charisma to the national stage that energized an entire generation to accept his call to service with a belief that government can make a difference in people’s lives.

Despite his wealth and heritage, Kennedy reached across all political demographics to capture the nation’s support while squarely facing its apprehension of his Catholic faith and inexperience.

Richard Nixon and John McCain represented an old guard status quo that was a “safe” choice, be it an accurate perception or not, although history will certainly treat McCain more kindly. Obama, like Kennedy, represents a fresh beginning and reflects the nation’s need for the optimism of all things that are possible. Both appealed to our nation’s conscience and frustration with the way things are and the way they could be. And while the age of Camelot has passed, it still glows in that conscience despite its brevity.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s comments that anti-American interests would likely test the new president’s mettle seem eerily similar to the era of nuclear fear from Russia that confronted Kennedy.

Obama’s initial interaction with world leaders will give them an insight into whether steel exists beneath his moderate and cooperative exterior. History reminds us that JFK’s political mistakes with the Russian premier contributed to Russia’s adventurism in Cuba. Their miscalculation brought the world closer to the precipice of nuclear war than ever before. But it also provided the young Kennedy his moment in time to prove where his standing of presidential greatness would fall.

History has also revealed to us Kennedy’s imperfections, but how many candidates over the past 45 years have been measured against the yardstick of what he accomplished in his 1,000-day presidency — what might have been, and the manner of impact upon his time with us? His age was such that his future was longer than his past, but that gave him the energy and vitality that his time demanded. Some historians have suggested that with Kennedy’s passing, we as a nation have been on an unfulfilled search for a candidate to complete his mission and bring closure to our nation’s dark despair with a new beginning.

JFK was confronted with a nation divided by racial issues, but was elected, as Obama has been, by a confluence of all demographic groups merging into one.

Obama also brings young children to the White House that will again reflect our nation’s personal attachment to its first family.

Kennedy learned, as Obama must, that despite soaring optimism and a gift for words spoken well, boldness of thought and desire cannot quickly overcome ramparts so high we have not seen anything like them in generations.

As the nation basks in the afterglow of the historical significance of this election, we must remember that we as a nation, much like the new president, still face obstacles of equal historical significance. The optimism that will reign over the country in January 2009 will provide a specter similar to January 1961. Obama, like Kennedy at that time, remains untested and expectations may be higher than a mortal can achieve. Kennedy stumbled in the beginning, as will Obama.

But Barack Obama’s election may finally allow us to escape that dark cloud and realize how far we have come — and that what was possible, still is. Is Barack Obama up to the task? More importantly, are we? Time will tell us for sure, but an extra prayer on our day of Thanksgiving might also help.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at