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Advice for Hillary: Just Remember JFK

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Clinton campaign may have lost its air of inevitability, but Caryl Rivers says it still has recent presidential history to refuel morale. Her message to the candidate: If JFK could hack it, so can you.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

Subhead: 
The Clinton campaign may have lost its air of inevitability, but Caryl Rivers says it still has recent presidential history to refuel morale. Her message to the candidate: If JFK could hack it, so can you.
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Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)--It hasn't been a great fortnight for the Clinton campaign.

Hillary's New Hampshire and Iowa polling leads are gone and rumors abound that Bill wants aides fired.

Hillary has taken major flak for a top aide's statement that Barack Obama's teenage drug use--which he wrote about in one of his books and mentions on the stump--will make him an easy target for Republicans.

So in other words, Hillary, the air of inevitability is over and your real race is on.

I have a modest suggestion. Why not take a few pages from the playbook of the first president I covered as a young reporter, John F. Kennedy? You two have a lot in common.

People worried that, as the first Catholic president, he'd build a tunnel to the Vatican.

You face the concern that, as a female, you will either collapse in a crisis (the weak woman myth) or run roughshod over everyone (the dragon lady myth). Either way, you can't be trusted with power.

You and JFK both made big missteps from which you learned.

Kennedy's came early in his presidency with the Bay of Pigs. He let an invasion of Cuba by U.S.-backed rebels proceed, despite his misgivings. And it was a disaster. This mistake taught him to trust his own instincts, not the military.

Your misstep came early in Bill's presidency when you were put in charge of getting major health care legislation through the Congress. When it crashed and burned, that taught you to be more open, to get the public on your side and not get trapped in what could be seen as elitist backroom deals. Making mistakes is the best way to get better at making decisions.

Political To-Do List

So, some suggestions:

Talk tough but think strategically about peace.

JFK was famous for Cold War rhetoric, but historians point out that in the end, he was more dove than hawk.

Sure, it was Khrushchev who blinked during the Cuban missile crisis; the Russians took their warheads out of Cuba, where they had been covertly installed. But Kennedy secretly made a deal to pull our missiles out of Turkey. He crafted the first test ban treaty. After the president's death his good friend Sen. Mike Mansfield said JFK was seriously planning to de-escalate the war in Vietnam.

Today, when even John McCain--one of the more reasonable GOP contenders--can be caught singing "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran" to the tune of an old Beach Boys song, we can safely say that the Republican pack is running to the right of Attila the Hun. To pull off some of their votes you will need to project strength, as you've been doing.

And don't apologize for your policy positions. (Apologizing to Obama for the dumb remark your campaign made is another story; that was the right thing to do.)

Your strategy of bringing most of the troops home but leaving small units there to deal with say, al-Qaida training camps, makes good sense. Using U.S. troops as a national police force can't succeed in the long run, but no serious military expert believes we can get everybody out tomorrow. The region is too critical to U.S. security.

Stick to the Sensible

It's tempting to appeal to the base by pledging instant troop withdrawal but Democrats need a realist to deal with all the saber rattling on the other side. Americans don't like the war and want out, but it's easy for them to get scared when the GOP plays the fear card. Strong but rational proposals are the only way to trump that.

Some people see your sex as a problem in foreign policy.

JFK's youth was used against him, and so he leveraged the debates to let people see him as cool, strong and in command. In contrast, Nixon, the experienced pro, looked like the callow performer. Kennedy talked tough and scored points. So it doesn't hurt that you do the same. The old Reagan Democrats will like that.

You know diplomacy is the best strategy, but as a woman, you can't be seen as weak-kneed. In the best of all possible worlds that would not be true, but we have not yet arrived at that estimable place. To make peace, you--or some Democrat--has to win. All the Republicans support Bush's war.

Oh, and don't be afraid to showcase Chelsea, as JFK used his mother and sisters and Jackie to good effect. Chelsea is stylish and smart, a reminder that you are a very good mother. She illustrates that your "family values" were to stay and work things out rather than head to divorce court.

I know, I know, some women wanted you to leave Bill, but lots of people will identify with what you did. We all know that most families have problems, and most people struggle to get through them.

JFK had family issues as well. Old Joe Kennedy had the drive and the money to help get one of his sons elected. But there were always those rumors about family money coming from bootleggers during Prohibition, and the time when, as ambassador to Britain before World War II, Kennedy Senior got too close to folks who seemed to want to appease Hitler.

Play the Change Card

Also, play the "change" card. Don't let your critics get away with saying you echo the past, and represent the establishment. What would be a bigger change than the first female president in history? Your instinct is to be bold; remember, as a Wellesley student you challenged Sen. Ed Brooke--who had become a hawk on Vietnam--to his face and told him he was dead wrong about that war.

Sometimes, forget the lawyer part of you and channel the young rebel.

Another thing: Ignore the well-meaning advice of your sisters who say you are not feminist enough. We'd all love for the first female president to be Gloria Steinem, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul all rolled up into one. It's not going to happen. Maybe someday, but not now.

No "first president" emerges from identity politics. JFK was as far from the familiar Irish Catholic pol as he could get; he talked Harvard and dressed Brahmin.

It's not surprising that the first black candidate who is seen as having a real chance, Barak Obama, does not come from civil rights struggles but is seen as transcending race. His father was from Africa, not Selma. Let your feminism emerge in those policy initiatives you support after you get elected.

You don't need to croon "I am woman, hear me roar." At least, not yet.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women" (University Press of New England) and a former White House correspondent.