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What Kind of Man Are You, President Obama -- Another LBJ?

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) December 9, 2009 -- At times, President Obama, you have invoked President Abraham Lincoln as an example. Perhaps this is understandable because each of you has a connection to Illinois. You read Doris Kearns Godwin's book about Lincoln, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" (2005), and her book influenced you to appoint your former rival Hillary Rodham Clinton to be your Secretary of State.

But I now want you to read another book, James W. Douglass' "JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters" (2008). In this fine book Douglass (born in the late 1930s), himself a Roman Catholic, draws extensively on the thought of a Roman Catholic convert, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968), to understand the life and death of our only Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy (1917-1963).

Douglass uses Merton's prescient comments in his January 1962 letter to his friend W. H. Ferry as the framework for reviewing well-known events from Kennedy's presidency. On pages xiv-xv in the introduction, Douglass quotes the following passage from Merton's letter:

"I have little confidence in Kennedy, I think he cannot measure up to the magnitude of the task, and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensitivity that is needed. Too much the "Time" and "Life" mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians don't have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self-forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that some day by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination."

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Thus far, President Obama, apart from your shrewd appointment of your former rival to be your Secretary of State, you appear to embody the "Time" and "Life" mentality of journalists, which probably accounts for the favorable media attention that you have received. How many times have you been on the cover of "Time" so far?

To this point, you have not manifested Lincoln's creative imagination and deeper kind of sensitivity, as President Kennedy did more and more as he progressed in his presidency.

Douglass uses Merton's reflections to help us understand why Kennedy was assassinated -- he had somehow managed to break through into that deeper kind of dedication to the human race as a whole. Douglass reviews Kennedy's presidency step by step to show how Kennedy did manage to break through to this deeper kind of dedication.

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Is it possible that you, President Obama, might somehow manage to turn away from your characteristic shrewdness and break through to the deeper kind of dedication that Merton refers to? I hope you do, but I am not optimistic about your doing so.

In the Cold War, the cold-hearted manipulators on one side competed with the cold-hearted manipulators on the other side to maintain a so-called "balance of power" -- which might more aptly be called a balance of terror. Each side in the Cold War had enough atomic power to obliterate millions of people in a relatively short time.

Unfortunately, the United States today still has such power at its ready disposal, just as it still has the CIA doing strange manipulative things around the world.

Thomas Merton referred to such possible atomic destruction of human life as the unspeakable. But President Kennedy's cold-hearted military advisers were enamored with speaking of a pre-emptive first atomic strike against the Soviet Union. But Kennedy resisted his military advisers time and time again.

To understand what Merton meant by the multi-purpose term the unspeakable, President Obama, I suggest that you consider Dante's famous work known as the "Inferno." In this vivid work about the Inferno in the afterlife that Christian tradition had for centuries been imagining, Dante imagined the worst evil to be the cold-hearted betrayal of one's own benefactor. So he put four representatives of this worst-imaginable evil in the icy depths of the Inferno (Lucifer, Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius).

But as you know, President Obama, enterprising human beings brought new, previously unimagined evils into existence in the 1940s, most notably with President Harry Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Because Truman brought the light of atomic bombs to war, I would dub him the New Lucifer (i.e., the new light-bringer).

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Merton refers to new evils of this previously unimagined kind as representing the unspeakable, because in earlier times people had not spoken of such unimagined evils as somehow obliterating millions of people. However, as we have noted, President Kennedy's military advisers were enamored with speaking about a pre-emptive first atomic strike against the Soviet Union. For his military advisers, nothing was unspeakable.

But what kind of men were President Kennedy's military advisers? And what kind of men and women are your military advisers today? And what kind of man are you, President Obama?

Douglass also refers to the code of "plausible deniability" and "need to know" as an example of what Merton refers to as the unspeakable.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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