CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column misstated the first name of GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain.
It struck me as more than a little odd, and crushingly sad, that we had to wait 47 years to find out what John F. Kennedy really thought of Lyndon Johnson. Oh, there had been stories of JFK’s dislike for his vice president, even about his tentative plans to dump him from the ticket in 1964. But if Jacqueline Kennedy is to be believed, her husband truly feared for the country’s fate—and not just because Johnson might be tainted by the Bobby Baker scandal, as JFK’s former secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, wrote in her memoir.
In newly released excerpts from a series of interviews she did in 1964, Jackie, her grief and anger still raw, told historian Arthur Schlesinger that JFK had fretted about LBJ’s suitability to succeed him. “He said, ‘Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?’ ” This was well before Johnson turned Vietnam into a bloody fiasco.
Doubts about JFK’s own suitability were raised, just as stealthily, by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, according to historian James Ledbetter. Although it took years to gain widespread support, one persuasive interpretation of Ike’s famous January 1961 warning against a “military-industrial complex”: The outgoing president feared that JFK was too naive to stand up to it, Ledbetter writes in his 2011 book, Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex. At the time, Kennedy was trumping up a fake “missile gap” with the Soviets as a campaign issue, and the Bay of Pigs was just around the corner.
Wouldn’t it be better if we all heard about these concerns in real time?
Today we face another presidential-succession process at a crucial moment in history. And I get the sense that we in the media are still just dancing around the real issues of character, readiness, and substance. Can’t we pretend, for a moment, that we’re Jackie and Arthur, parsing the here and now for real—not for the cameras—and talking the way real people talk? No speeches, no posturing for posterity, and no worrying about offending conventional wisdom.
Here’s what that might sound like.
First, we all know that one of three people will be the next president: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, or Rick Perry. The others are entertaining—and they’ve all had their moments in the debates—but Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann have about as much chance of becoming president as you or I. (It’s a shame, because Bachmann’s vow to bring only the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights with her into the White House suggested that we might see some very creative attire.)
Jon Huntsman fits the perfect caricature of a candidacy: smart, serious, good head of hair. But as Obama’s former servant (his ambassador to China), he has no business here, and everyone knows it. Herman Cain is, well, a pizza executive. The only reason Ron Paul is not simply scary is that we all know he has no chance of running anything, so he is simply silly. I mean, a gallon of gas might cost only a “silver dime” if he were president? Sure, and the Model T could be America’s next great export. When another question about the Fed came up at the debate the other night, my Atlantic Media colleague Jeff Goldberg tweeted merrily that Paul’s forthcoming response would be like the drum solo at a 1970s rock concert: time to go get some beer.
How long does the pretense have to go on? Is it really necessary that we all play along with Rick Santorum’s fantasy and Newt’s self-indulgence?
Second, while the economy is the primary issue, no one in Washington really knows how the economy works anymore, no one agrees on it, and no one will talk about the problem. “The really fundamental question,” the head of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, told the super committee this week, is “what role do you and your colleagues want the government to play in the economy and the society?” Most of what we’re hearing is bumper-sticker solutions with no rhyme or reason behind them. Three years into a titanic crisis that has left us with serious (and justifiable) skepticism about the ability of either markets or government to manage things, the conversation in Washington about what really happened to the economy has not yet begun.
Romney’s 59-point program is little more than a grab bag of traditional GOP nostrums. Obama, still looking desperately for cover from Republican attacks, has put forward a program heavily reliant on GOP-style tax cuts and tax incentives. Much of the $450 billion program could work, but Republicans will probably quash the most effective spending/stimulus part and leave the least job-creating parts: the tax cuts and credits. Here, we’re all pretending as well: Businesses hire because they need employees, and they need employees because demand for their products and services is up, not because they get a break on their taxes. No one is talking about the one big move that could make a difference: using the current rock-bottom interest rates to help hundreds of thousands of underwater mortgage holders to refinance.
And then there’s Rick (I Can Do the Math on That One) Perry. He continues as apparent front-runner by insisting that the 2009 stimulus package created “zero” jobs. That’s comically wrong. Economists estimate that it created or saved at least a million and a half jobs—just not enough. Perry also said that we need to “free up Wall Street”—as if the global economy had not been nearly hurled into a second Great Depression by Wall Street just two and a half years ago.
Knock, knock. Time for a reality check. Anybody home? Is that you, Lyndon? We have a message for you …
This article appears in the September 17, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.