Tuesday, December 30, 2008

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.


At December 31, 2008 at 2:04 AM, Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

yeah, kennedy wasn't afraid to fail. one thing about him i always liked was the way he would remind folks who hung the hero star on him for what he did with his surviving crew from pt 109 (which he never fully recovered from physically) that he was at the helm when the jap destroyer cut it in half.

adams was another president who made mistakes, sucked it up and moved on. lincoln too, his learning curve during the civil war was huge.

of course mistakes will be made. i hope obama has the wisdom not to pretend that they aren't.

At December 31, 2008 at 3:45 AM, Blogger CupOJoe said...

Well said. I've been saying the same thing on my blog only not so diplomatically. It's an unfortunate fact that some liberals are just as ideologically demanding as some right-wingers are.

I think it's important that we stand solidly behind this President, and if we are going to criticize him, we should do so in a constructive way. Bitching and moaning that he isn't Dennis Kucinich doesn't accomplish anything.

There's so much to do, so many years of conservative ideological disasters to fix, that focusing on petty, symbolic issues like the Warren prayer will hurt our chances to do what needs to be done.

At January 3, 2009 at 11:22 AM, Blogger JeanDodge said...

JFK _AND_ the joint chiefs of staff did the right thing in some respects when they allowed the Anti-Castro Cuban exiles to go ahead with their CIA planned, foolishly doomed invasion, in that they removed a cell of dangerous fanatics from Florida and let them expend their rage on the shores of Cuba, thereby blunting their eventual US political power. The failure was mostly the CIA's fault for lacking vision and executing so poorly the general idea of a secretly-supported coup attempt like they had been able to pull off in Guatemala. By the time JFK heard about the plan, it was more trouble for him domestically to scuttle it than it was for him to let it go ahead. The problem was handled on several tiers - domestic, international, MSM and also on a level of where the ones who were wise could see what the truth was. Yes, it was a giant embarrassment and a true debacle but he spun out of it as well as could be expected. (It is entirely possible however that he paid for this misstep with his life - his assassin(s) may have been connected to the Bay Of Pigs fallout. )

Obama is letting this goon say a prayer at his party. There are worse ways to suck up to the religious right... and he just might need the slight edge this empty symbolic gesture will afford him when he begins to press congress to fast track some radical ideas. Not that Obama is all about radical ideas - it's just that the times call for them, and he is now at the helm. Bushco has WRECKED the economy and lost two wars we can't pay for.

Think about FDR's first 100 days instead of JFKs and we might be more in the ballpark for apt comparisons. Like MInstrel Boy pointed out, JFK had the lessons of PT 109 to temper his ambition -but Obama has yet to experience a catastrophic failure in his career. FDR had a huge sense of entitlement and a great deal of energy and public will to act boldly. We'll see soon enough though.


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