Failing Toward Success
(President and Mrs. Kennedy greet members of the 2506 Cuban Invasion Brigade, 29 December 1962. Picture and caption courtesy of the JFK Presidential Library.)
Sometimes failure is almost synonymous with success. By that, I don't mean a William Kristol/Dick Cheney/Donald Rumsfeld failing upwards kind of way. I'm speaking of failure as a legitimate learning tool for success. In short, learning from one's mistakes.
The incoming Obama administration will be looked at in two ways, depending upon your political stripe.
Liberals and progressives, used to fetishistic secrecy, snarling hostility and neverending incompetence will view any dilution of failure as a great success by conspicuous relief. Until recently, people were wondering where to fit Bill Clinton's face on Mt. Rushmore mainly on the strength of the Bush bookends on either side of his presidency.
Conservatives will view any action that deviates from Bush's greatest failures both foreign and domestic as a betrayal of their pet causes. Obama, of course, is not Alan Keyes and they should already know that.
But there's a third school of thought, those of us who are hypervigilant to anything that smells like Bush. We're already piling on (and yes, I'm also guilty as charged) the future president just for tapping for a ceremonial honor of delivering the inaugural invocation a homophobic pastor in the interests of "diversity."
And as troubling as it is for Obama to tap Rick Warren to give the invocation on January 20th, passing off Warren's intolerance toward an oppressed minority as a legitimate competing viewpoint, it's still an ultimately ceremonial function and a controversy that will blow over by January 21st. The incoming president will have far more challenging decisions to make that will surely age him as the strain of the presidency ages all who have held the office.
But Obama will surely fail, as surely as Kennedy had failed his first months in office. And we will need to be patient and to continue supporting him as he takes over a nation that is infinitely more troubled than the United States that Kennedy had inherited in 1960. After all, if we could support George W. Bush after 9/11, then Obama certainly deserves at least as much (as a point of historical fact, when Kennedy took the blame for the Bay of Pigs, his approval rating actually shot up to 83%, a lesson obviously lost on the current resident of the West Wing).
The Bay of Pigs was cold water thrown on a presidency that was untroubled by Vietnam and East Berlin, before US Steel went on strike, before missile bases were discovered by U2 spy planes over Cuba and was blithely ignorant of the emerging civil right unrest.
Unfairly stigmatized by the Bay of Pigs, which was an Eisenhower/Nixon production, Kennedy was presented with the proposed invasion by the Joint Chiefs and the new president was already feeling political pressure to overthrow Castro and to re-establish American influence in the Caribbean. To not do so would be to look weak against Communism.
On April 17th, CIA-armed and trained Cuban exiles launched an attack on the south shore of the island. It was, to quote one CIA official, "a perfectly-planned failure." Things had gone so far south that Kennedy was forced to deny air support to the Cuban exiles that he'd already promised them. Afterwards, Kennedy wondered how he and the "best and brightest" minds could've been so stupid.
A year and a half later, Kennedy was faced with another Communist crisis when Russian missile bases were discovered on Cuba. Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev took a dangerous gamble and Kennedy was under greater pressure than with the Bay of Pigs to oppose the Soviet threat. The Joint Chiefs that had once had their way with Kennedy in the spring of 1961 were now putting enormous pressure on the freshman president to invade Cuba for the second time. Kennedy settled for a blockade.
No doubt, when reasonable and pragmatic proposals were given to him by four star generals and admirals eager to overthrow Castro and humiliate Khrushchev, Kennedy must have thought, "Well, I've already invaded Cuba once before and look how well that worked out."
Without the 1961 Bay of Pigs, perhaps Kennedy would've invaded Cuba in 1962, which almost surely would've brought us to thermonuclear war with the USSR. Kennedy's prior failure could very well be thought of almost as a safety valve or a fail safe mechanism for what would come a year and a half later, an object lesson of how to not invade a nation occupied by a nuclear superpower.
The same could happen with Obama. Obama could make a blunder that could prove to be a valuable lesson later in his presidency. It could involve Iraq or Iran or Pakistan. And while Obama's record on gay civil rights is lukewarm at best, let's not forget that Jack Kennedy, a white child of privilege from Cape Cod, seemed completely oblivious to the Civil Rights movement until it could no longer be ignored. Kennedy was also reluctant to embrace civil rights because his agendas depended largely on southern Senators even more reluctant to right wrongs to blacks.
By the time of the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy had finally become the president that Americans had deluded themselves into thinking he already was. He became the rare example of a president who actually grew into the expectations of a nation.
Barack Obama will inherit an infinitely more troubled nation than the one inherited by Kennedy in 1961. There will be many opportunities for failure, such as making rash tactical decisions so as not to look weak against terrorism. So before we begin criticizing him for every perceived misstep, let's wait and see how well he learns from those inevitable mistakes and whether he embraces controversial issues before political expediency. Let's also remember how instructional constant failure over eight years was for his predecessor.