Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lyndon B. Obama at West Point

It was a little bit like listening to Lyndon B. Obama.

When President Barack Obama spoke eloquently of his goals in far-off Afghanistan that name popped into my mind—Lyndon B. Obama. Lyndon Johnson began, like Obama, earning the trust and admiration of the nation. Johnson also began his presidency as a man of high ideals. It was not his good intentions, but his rickety judgment that disrupted a generation of Americans.

While Barry Obama was smiling in his crib in Honolulu, Vice President Johnson was answering questions for journalists in an impromptu outdoor news conference a few blocks away. It is memorable for me nearly half a century later, when memory tends to be fickle, because a reporter’s cigar shed glowing ashes onto my jacket, where they continued to smolder.

Within a year or so, Johnson had become president, promising a war on poverty but drained by a war in Vietnam and the urge to escalate, like a gambler who doubles his bets each time he loses until finally he runs out of chips.

Is Obama’s idealism, which has held great promise for him and the country, blurring his judgment, which until now has been so cool? A nation in economic recession, with a creaky education apparatus, unresolved health care issues and a rusting system of highways, bridges, rail and air transport, asks such questions.

In his address at West Point, President Obama spoke of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose family home isnearby, also on the Hudson River. Roosevelt, who began his presidency in the economic gloom of the Great Depression, was commander-in-chief when bombs rained on the island that would become Obama’s home. Hindsight shows that FDR didn’t always make the best decisions, as in the scandal of Japanese-American internment camps. He did not choose to go to war. The war came to him.

President Obama has more choices than FDR, plus whatever benefit there may be in hindsight, while an anxious world wants to believe in his foresight.

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