Robb: JFK or GWB?

February 11th, 2012

I’m looking for an appropriate descriptive phrase for what I’m doing here… how about e-scribblings? Anyway, because of some of the baroquely detailed vignettes I’ve posted from time to time, occasional responders have mentioned that I seem to have a remarkable memory. I don’t. I have almost no memory at all. If I ever do gather some of these reminiscences into a book I was thinking of calling it ‘Memoirs of an Amnesiac’.

There are stretches of months or years that are an absolute blank, occasionally interspersed with brightly lit, highly focused little set pieces, some of which I have provided here. I guess whenever a certain event passes muster with me, it goes into a different part of my brain where it gets polished, idealized and stored in some sort of mental archive. And everything else just washes away.

Other than my many contretemps with the Theater Department, most of the memories of my freshman year in college fall into the ‘flushed’ category. There was only one thing that truly stood out: the election of 1960.

Because I come from a political family (that is to say, Dad would hold forth at dinner and Mom would nod knowingly) I remember the elections that preceded Nixon-Kennedy, but for a seventeen year old Democrat alive in that time period, the arrival of JFK was like a tidal wave. I had felt political passion before but it was always once removed, implanted by my father. (The first campaign I can remember was Truman-Dewey, definitely a distant roar. After that, the leper-like feeling of being virtually the only kid with a Stevenson button at Lincoln Elementary – twice – in a sea of I like Ike.)

But 1960 was different. Here, I was way out ahead of Dad. Not to say he wasn’t very pro Kennedy, but for an inchoate, nascent politico it was like throwing Elvis, The Beatles and Jesus into the mix.

I did a lot of debating in my freshman year. I remember arguing on one side or the other about the defensibility of Quemoy and Matsu and other burning issues of the time. I was a Kennedy volunteer, working at the Reseda Democratic headquarters. (One of my jobs was to harass Republicans. Some of you may remember my description, earlier in these pages, of how I became a bete noire to Tim’s mother, who worked at the Reseda Republican headquarters long before he and I became friends).

But ultimately, what we have here is a cautionary tale about who we select as our heroes. Of course Kennedy did some great things, (the Peace Corps, the moon mission) and he still remains an iconic (mostly visual) image to many people. But in 1960, who could have imagined the Bay of Pigs, his sharing a mistress with gangster Sam Giancana and the rest of his almost frenetic serial womanizing, or his being so stoned on painkillers during the Vienna Summit that Khrushev was emboldened to plant nuclear missiles in Cuba precipitating a crisis that could have been the most disastrous in human history? Did I mention the Vietnam War? Listen, almost ending civilization as we know it is a pretty serious screw up. Can you imagine any other president doing all that and still retaining a positive image? George W, for example? (See the comparison below.) There are people who detest the Vietnam War at the same time they love Kennedy and if you mention that it was he who got America involved there, they either stare blankly or mutter that had he not been assassinated, he would have gotten us out.

Or maybe they simply don’t care. And worse yet, maybe they’re right. Maybe all you need is a great look, a hot looking wife, a dandy turn of phrase and an iconic death and everything else becomes inconsequential. The facts and the acts fade away and all that’s left is the Image.

See how I did that? Started a reminiscence and turned it into a rant? Pretty good huh?


Let’s look, shall we?


Vietnam War (58,000 + dead Americans)

Cuban Invasion and abandonment of expatriates after promising support

Stoned on painkillers pretty much all the time

Disatrous Vienna summit due to (see above) emboldening Khruschev to put missles in Cuba. Leading to…

Cuban Missle Crisis which nearly resulted in nuclear war and end of world as we know it

Frenetic serial adulterous womanizing

Consorting with Mafia on Castro assassination and other issues…

… to say nothing of sharing a mistress with Sam Giancanna

Probably stole election from Nixon in West Virginia and Illinois

Pretty much ignored civil rights movement until forced to confront it


Peace Corps

Moon mission

Jackie’s sense of style

Great looking guy and inspiring speaker


Iraq war (4500+ dead Americans)

Cheney, Rumsfeld et al.

Never vetoing a single spending bill in eight years thereby creating present debt crisis

Knee-jerk deregulation (thereby creating present housing and jobs crisis)

Probably stole election from Gore in Florida

Poor speaker, generally uninspiring leader

After declaring it a national mission, never got Bin Laden


Presumably never got BJ in oval office

There you have it. I am one of a great minority who don’t believe either war was a total disaster. I’ll argue that in detail later. But for now, bowing to majority opinion, I’ve listed both in the bad column.

But switch the lists in your mind. Imagine Dubya with JFK’s list. Combine what you already think of GWB with the prospect of nearly bumbling into a nuclear war and all the other things on JFK’s roster. I’ll bet you’d rapture right off the planet.

Style is everything.

TH: I just want to say that this  message was not approved by the Hallinan for Some Important Post Campaign and that one of the things I’ve always liked best about Robb is how he can stir things up.

23 Responses to “Robb: JFK or GWB?”

  1. EverettK Says:

    Good God, I’d managed to go several MONTHS without seeing an image of GWB.

    Now that’s shot, thanks a lot. And I’d been feeling so good. Sigh.

    But yeah, when it comes to politics, unfortunately style is usually everything. And no, GWB had none. Now please don’t bring him up again for…oh…30 or 40 years? Much appreciated!

    Memoirs of an Amnesiac? That’s already been published. You can find it in almost any bookstore. Hard covers, filled with nothing but blank pages. For some reason the copies are never filed under autobiographies, but rather under journals.

  2. Philip Coggan Says:

    The plus side for George seems a little thin. I did a quick google search, “Achievements of George Bush as President”. This is what I found – can one of you Americans tell me if the Weekly Standard is serious or a spoof? Anyway, it’s the WS, and they list Bush’s ten achivements:
    1. Killed the Kyoto Treaty
    2. Tortured detainees (the WS calls it “enhanced interrogation)
    3. Ignored Congress and the courts (the WS calls it “rebuilding Presidential authority” – if they’re serious, this is serious)
    4. Supported Israel (the WS has some rather tortuous reasoning here that I don’t quite follow)
    5. No Child Left Behind
    6. Supported democracy in non-democratic regimes (I’m not aware that he actually achieved anything, but he supported it)
    7. Medicare prescription drug benefit of 2003 (I have no idea what this was, but perhaps it really was important)
    8. Appointed conservatives to the Supreme Court (seems rather partisan achievement, but who am I to say)
    9. Strengthened relations with Japan, Australia and India without alienating China (true, especially the bit about India)
    10.The Surge: “Iraq is now a fragile but functioning democracy” (I have my doubts on that one).

    So there it, GWB’s achievements as seen by his friends – unless the WS is a satirical publication.

  3. Julie Evelsizer Says:

    It’s refreshing to hear the bad things about JFK. Funny how just the act of being assassinated makes him come off like a god. And as for Jackie… well, she’s (thank God) the last example of somebody who was worshipped for being rich and looking pretty. Not that I’d touch any Republican since Reagan with a ten-foot pole: you put your finger on the only negligible accomplishment of GWB.

  4. Sharai Says:

    Thanks for proving my point about ‘When have we NOT been disappointed in our president?’ (see response #33 to Newt blog). And thank you Everett for providing the humor. No conversation about politics should ever be without it!

  5. michael hallinan Says:

    No BJ in the Oval Office (later renamed the Oral Office during the Clinton years) is a good thing? I’ll take benevolent incompetence over style and flair. Unleash the dogs.

  6. robb royer Says:


  7. michael hallinan Says:

    Who let the dogs out?

  8. robb royer Says:

    Sorry Ev another Dubya related blog coming soon. Per your request, no picture. Re Memoirs… another good idea shot to hell.
    Philip – that article sounds largely satirical to me, although unless you’re a Chomskyite or Ahmedinejad, I don’t see any problem with supporting Israel. As far as Iraq being a functioning but fragile democracy – his mouth to God’s ear.
    Julie thanks for the good words. But I don’t share your optimism about the Jackie being last person celebrated for being rich or (arguably) pretty. What about the Kar-doosh-ians?
    Sharai – I was pretty happy with both of the Roosevelts. I wonder if there’s any more of them lying around?
    Mice – the premier of China, which is to say, Hu let the dogs out.

  9. Stephen Cohn Says:

    Your blog is an interesting comparison of information which I haven’t seen presented in this way and is courageous considering the subject matter.

    From my POV, it’s not simply style when a leader inspires a nation with a vision of everything from getting in shape to doing the right thing for your country. JFK was a wealthy man who could have comfortably fucked around and stayed stoned in the privacy of his estate, skipping a political life… and not gotten assassinated for being such a visionary humanitarian and liberal. He was an important part of the movement in consciousness that became known as “the 60s”. Particularly for our generation, he opened up new possibilities.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I have to say that I’m somewhat amazed at how tame the reaction has been to the comparison between JFK and GWB.

    I think they both get off far too easily. First, in GWB’s “Bad” column, how about:

    1. He shredded the Bill of Rights with the Patriot Act.

    2. He effectively suspended Habeas Corpus for the first time since Lincoln did it during the Civil War – and, under pressure, I’d argue that the Civil War was a much greater threat to America’s survival that a bunch of rag-heads financed by a rich lunatic who spent the end of his life watching porn and listening to his beard grow.

    3. He imperiled the financial stability of the country by blowing five to seven trillion dollars, creating a national debt that his successor has allowed to mushroom even further.

    4. He turned our airports into North Korea.

    5. All of this was part of what I think was the greatest overreaction in American history, an undeclared, uncontrolled, unwinnable war on terror that has been marked by the invasion of a blameless (if horrific) country, tens of thousands of innocent people dead as “collateral damage), which is Newspeak for murder, none of which has made us one measurable iota safer.

    6. He defiled and degraded the English language daily.

    On the other hand, in starting the Vietnam war, JFK took us on a homicidal and semi-suicidal path that killed (once again) tens of thousands of innocent people and led, through our bombing of Cambodia, to the triumph of the Khmer Rouge (whom we supported because they opposed Vietnam) and the murder of another 1.8 million Cambodians. And for what? To delay the triumph of North Vietnam for a few years?

    In fact, the thing that most startles me is that no one has asked what aspect of either the Vietnam or Iraqi wars are okay. I personally believe they’re amoral, immoral, unwinnable expenditures of testosterone by a disgraceful cadre of “leaders” without a scruple among them. I’d personally like to see a new law saying that the politicians who take us into war are constitutionally compelled to be in the front lines. I think we’d be in for a lengthy interval of peace.

    Or am I being intemperate?

  11. Philip Coggan Says:

    Someone really should organise a get-together of the Hallinan Fanclub And International Relations Forum – ‘twould be a blast!

  12. Sharai Smith Says:

    Thanks Tim! On this blog I know that if I wait long enough, someone else will say it better than I ever could!

  13. robb royer Says:

    Stephen – JFK was an incredibly wealthy man who DID fuck around (constantly and on the public payroll) and DID stay stoned in the most inappropriate situations ( with the result that he almost bungled away millions of lives) ((farbeit for me to criticize getting stoned, but I think that degree of responsibility should be a little sobering)).
    What you have not shown (and he has not) is whether he left the (his dad’s)estate out of a sense of public duty or lust for power and a sense of entitlement. Don’t forget Joe Sr., one of the most sinister characters in American history, had pretty much reserved the presidency for his eldest son Joe Jr. before Jr. messed up the plan by getting himself killed in WWII. JFK was penciled in later.
    If you read about JFK’s record in congress and the senate, he showed almost no interest in his duties, the posts were nothing more than nuisance stepping stones to ultimate power.
    I am not saying he was not an inspiring figure, viewed at the time. The whole point of my piece was that he WAS unbelievably inspiring at the time, but looked at in retrospect, he was pretty much a fraud.
    Look at the story that came out just this week. How much awe do we reserve for a powerful man who pretty much kept a nineteen year old intern locked up for his repeated sexual use and even whored her out for PUBLIC use by his cohorts.

    I will give you that he was a visionary. He achieves that status for both the Peace Corps and the moon project.

    But I contend that he was ruined from boyhood by a malignant father who taught him to be a serial adulterer, power monger, liar and cheater. (read about the ballot box stuffing in WV and ILL.) Doesn’t matter how you achieve power, just get it. By the way, you seem to imply that JFK knew he would be assassinated, which of course he didn’t.

    I don’t argue with your contention that a generation of us were inspired, I am just saying, look back at what we were inspired by. It’s totally different that what we thought it was.

  14. Suzanna Says:

    Wonderful discussion everyone. Thanks for starting it all off, Robb. I don’t have it in me to join in right now but did want to say this: I think it’s important to regard our so called leaders as they really are, flawed like the rest of us, far from perfect, and answerable to all their missteps and half measures.

    Tim, I am so with you. Bush’s column needed some additional work and I’m glad you were there to add to it and enlarge on the point probably most of us here feel, that he was, and remains a blundering idiot who has left a wake of destruction behind him so terrible and wide that it will take our country decades to recover. God, I hope it does.

  15. Stephen Cohn Says:

    Robb – I take your point regarding a “look back at what we were inspired by”. I agree that it’s valuable to peer through the legend and look at the whole person. However, I don’t agree with the conclusions you’ve drawn from doing this. I thought about many arguments I would like to make but came up with just a few that are worth making.

    I’m sure that you’ve gotten your facts from a credible source but I think it’s prudent to be skeptical of info about public figures, particularly info about their personal lives. “Journalists” who choose to dish the dirt about luminaries frequently have a self-serving and iconoclastic agenda and use tabloid ethics in their reporting – kind of like republican campaign tactics – where something based on a kernel of reality gets twisted way out of proportion so that it ends up not representing the spirit of truth at all. In the personal stuff you point out, I’m betting that it’s not the whole story which always is multi-faceted.

    Secondly, I don’t buy drawing conclusions about his motivations – which are always complex and not really decipherable from the outside. I would guess (and hope) that anyone who runs for president would have thought and dreamed about being in power and about what would be done with it. I don’t find that to be contrary to wanting to serve his country. I think, also, that while JFK didn’t know that he would be assassinated, he must have considered the possibility with his administration’s pursuit of the Mafia and his liberal stance on many hot-button issues. I think he could have enjoyed his dalliance in relative safety without taking on the devastating responsibility of being president.

    Lastly, I think that how we view him, or anyone, is a personal choice. I showed my girlfriend, Ellie, your response to my comment – she wrote “his last paragraph makes me think about how we are influenced by many adults when we are young — both favorably and not- And, how many of our heroes fall as we look closer at them (i.e. parents). And how we have a need to admire and put others on pedestals and then get pissed when those people don’t live up to our expectations…none of it is black and white…All leaders, including great spiritual teachers, have disappointed their followers in some way or other”. So when you say he was a fraud, I can only say that I don’t see him that way. The contributions he made, which you listed, and his inspiration of a generation that created much positive change are accepted as valid history. I give this more significance that his troubled childhood, his family karma and his personal issues – but then that’s just my choice.

    BTW – many thanks for provoking another great conversation!

  16. michele Says:

    Thanks Tim for providing this forum for such interesting and intelligent discussion. I’m enjoying it immensely. Particularly since it gives us a chance to read and think without being interupted or screamed over. The worst we get is capital letters.

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Michele, but the gratitude should really go to Robb, who set this fire in the first place with one of the most original approaches ever. I think he should write a weekly issues column, and we’ll run it here.

    This has been a fascinating entry point to a discussion of, among other things, how our presidents (probably inevitably) disappoint us. John Ciardi, who translated Dante into English, once called translation “the art of failure,” but maybe the phrase is better applied to the presidency.

  18. robb royer Says:

    And let me add my thanks to everyone who took the time to engage in our little discussion. Of course there’s more to be said. I’ll check back in soon.

    Stephen – hi to Ellie.

  19. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I am really late to this, but I read this several times, and simply can’t reconcile the two men in the same discussion. Yes, JFK was not up to his hype, and Vietnam was a terrible happening, costly in lives and morale. But GWB was a travesty, as a leader, as a man. We aren’t finished with the effects of his Presidency from the economy to the Supreme Court. Of course, I was young and inspired by “Camelot,” but at least, the Kennedys brought some elegance to the country. I guess that means something to me. There are always scandals.

  20. Julie Evelsizer Says:

    Sorry, but IMHO, if it were a given that JFK and GWB were equally f*cked up and did equal damage to the country, and JFK and his Camelot brought elegance to the country, and GWB was a drunken frat boy who couldn’t even speak English, I’d consider them equal. Which brings me back to what I said about Jackie way back when, Robb – she was the last lady in an official position of power to be revered for elegance and nothing more. The Kardashians and their ilk don’t count because they’re pseudo-celebrities – people who are famous only for being famous.

  21. robb royer Says:

    Julie, let me be the (second) to say I’d take Jackie over the Kardipshitans. Hell I’ll take Petunia Pig over that KKK clan. But you have to be a little curious about not just Jackie but all the Kennedy women from Rose on down and the obvious deal with the devil they made. The satyrism must have been swirling around them like angry bees, without even a pretense of subtlety, from Jack and Bobby sharing Marilyn Monroe to day-one interns being hauled off to Jack’s bed. Jackie and Ethyl managed somehow to keep their dignity. From my perspective Rose did not.

  22. Larissa Says:

    This is a great discussion-truly-and I have to say that I respect everyone on here for being so clearly capable of representing their position and their perspectives. I am from another era–the earliest Politics I remember is the Gulf War…and that’s summed up by images that float around in my brain of the “Saddam Hussain Thwacker”, Channel 9 news reports of the mess and a total sense of confusion as to what was actually going on “over there”.

    Now-however, I take politics fairly seriously but I find that I cannot articulate everything that I think or feel or want to believe or want to understand and so I just stay out of arguments…unless a particularly brazen individual really gets my blood going and then, well, I’m not responsible for the legitimacy of anything that comes out of my mouth.

    Anyway-wonderful post–even I, who wasn’t around for any of it, have a sense of sweet nostalgia and respect towards JFK but when you really look at it and read about it, the overwhelming sense is that the idea of JFK has far outshone the actual doings of JFK.

    Here’s a tip of the hat to panache and rocking the boat-politically (JFK) and literally (Robb)! Cheers.

  23. Fred Says:

    Most of what you know about JFK is wrong. First of all, he didn’t cause the Vietnam War; his assassination caused the Vietnam War, and vice versa. He had already ordered the withdrawal of troups, which order was rescinded shortly after the coup d’etat. Secondly, at the beginning of his list of accomplishments, add “Saved the planet from a nuclear World War III during the Cuban missile crisis.” JFK was the polar opposite of GWB. JFK was pro-peace, and consistently tried to help the poor and the powerless. GWB was consistently a puppet of the rich and powerful, and was willing to do anything, including start a war, for oil profits. JFK was a war hero and had to pull strings to get INTO military service. GWB pulled strings to get out of it. JFK was highly intelligent, well-informed and competent. GWB, give me a break. JFK secured a nuclear test ban treaty. GWB couldn’t pronounce nuclear test ban treaty. Putting JFK’s picture next to GWB’s is like putting Lincoln’s picture next to Forrest Gump’s.

Leave a Reply