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The undoing of a president's mystique

What would have happened to JFK if he'd been scrutinized by the media in the same way as Obama?

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The first Catholic and the first African-American in the White House were a couple of cool customers—young, witty, eloquent, self-deprecating, and married to sensational women. Their elusiveness—whatever about them was not quite in focus—helped deepen their mystique.

John F. Kennedy didn't get much done in the White House, and he didn't occupy it long, but he died with his mystique intact, and it's still in sturdy shape today: a few weeks ago New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, writing in her Sunday book section, noted that some 40,000 books about JFK have been published since he was assassinated in 1963. She discussed a couple dozen of them by name. Yet Kennedy "remains almost impossible to pin down," she marveled—not that it's surprising that someone who's been interpreted 40,000 ways would remain a mystery.

Perhaps Barack Obama's misfortune was to run for reelection and win it, making himself too familiar for his (or his mystique's) own good. Or perhaps he simply made the mistake no leader can afford—which is failing to lead.

"Unlike Clinton in 1994," wrote Jonathan Alter in The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, a study of Obama's presidency from the Democrats' 2010 midterm defeats through his reelection, "Obama didn't brood or lash out in the weeks following the [midterm] election. . . . He knew the results looked bad and that he would have to retool, but he never internalized the magnitude of the defeat. This reflected either a worrying level of disengagement or commendable resiliency and solid mental health."

On that $64,000 question, Obama is no longer getting the benefit of the doubt. Perceptions of him are undergoing a sea change, and beyond the headlines and opinion polls that say so are conversations I've had with Obama loyalists who are fed up. Despite years of lead time, he failed to prime the public for Obamacare and Obamacare for the country, negligence that undermines the argument that his diffident response to other issues (chemical weapons in Syria, for example) reflects prudence and wisdom rather than dithering. Even the recent blundering Republican attempt to destroy Obamacare regardless of whether the world economy went down with it has had an ironic aftershock: the more nihilistic and downright ignorant Obama's enemies prove themselves to be, the more bewildering it is to Obama's supporters that he hasn't rolled over them.

I mention these failings because I'm writing here to suggest another factor in the president's troubles, and I don't want it to look as if by bringing it up I'm forgetting that he's primarily to blame. But when I read Abramson's piece surveying the massive literature on JFK, I had a thought: What books did he have to contend with while he was alive? Were pundits raising the entrails of his presidency up to the light as rapidly as they could?

I looked for books published on JFK while he was president. I'm sure I missed some instantly forgotten ephemera, but I came up with three: The Making of the President, 1960, by Theodore White; Portrait of a President, by William Manchester; and John F. Kennedy and PT-109, by Richard Tregaskis. None of these authors' motivations were to cut Kennedy down to size.

Looking further, I counted 13 books on Amazon dealing with the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. (All were published after Kennedy was dead.) None were written to exalt Kennedy as the president who saved the human race, nor were they written to trash him as the quisling who caved to the commie infidels Khrushchev and Castro.

Times have changed. Today, the Internet spews out history's first draft seconds after the events occur—and our publishing houses soon spew out the second. Bob Woodward published four books on George W. Bush's presidency before it was over and has published two so far on Obama's. I'm sure I've missed some books on Obama, but I counted 35 on Amazon; many are hagiographies, but other authors set out to cut their subject not just down to size but into chum for sharks and piranhas. Consider such titles as Barack Obama, Prophecy, and the Destruction of the United States; The Great Destroyer: Barack Obama's War on the Republic; Impeachable Offenses: The Case for Removing Barack Obama From Office; and Cocaine, Sex, Lies & Murder.

Those books are out there doing whatever they do. But so are other books written by notable authors and reviewed in important places. Alter's book was one of those, and when he wrote of Obama, "The uncomfortable truth was that he didn't much like politics and didn't enjoy the company of other politicians," he was solemnizing between hard covers something a lot of people were already having a tough time trying to construe as a virtue. Snark is now in fashion, and some of the noteworthy books take a tone that suggests boys shy of their teens tearing the wings off flies. Kennedy was hated as Obama is hated, but he wasn't worked over by cynics who think all Washington, D.C., is good for is a few laughs.

In my lap at this moment is This Town, by Mark Leibovich of the New York Times Magazine. Because Leibovich's larger subject is our "gilded capital," this isn't even one of the Obama books I tallied on Amazon. But of course the president figures throughout. "I first heard the term 'Suck-up City' from a top Obama adviser during the 2008 campaign," Leibovich writes early in his book. "He was describing the Beltway culture that Obama was running against—and then, after he won, that his White House vowed to change."

Late in the book, Leibovich offers a memo written by a deputy press secretary sucking up to Obama's "senior adviser" and "BFF," Valerie Jarrett. It's titled "The Magic of Valerie." Its 33 talking points include: "Valerie is the perfect combination of smart, savvy and innovative." And "Valerie is someone here who other people inside the building know they can trust. (need examples.)"

So much for change in the culture.

If Obama were kicking ass in Washington the way a lot of liberals think he's supposed to be, "The Magic of Valerie" wouldn't make well-wishers wince. But Obama isn't, so it does. It's one of those little embarrassments that can accrue and haunt a president on the ropes—the way Jimmy Carter came to be haunted by the story of the Killer Rabbit.

The latest book on the Obama White House is Double Down: Game Change 2012, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. I know it by its reviews—particularly the Times review by Michiko Kakutani, who calls it "buzzy" and "breezy" and chock-full of "scooplets" and "insider glimpses" into last year's presidential campaigns that are tasty even if they suffer from "fuzzy sourcing." Kakutani says the book "sheds light" on the struggle between the White House and the Republicans mainly by "underscoring the pettiness and self-serving spin engaged in by both sides."

But how much light is shed by doing that? Historians don't explain wars by describing field tactics; they examine the cause each side is fighting for.

The Associated Press review concludes, "'Double Down' is a fun read, replete with cracks like: 'For anyone familiar with the first lady, her emergence as a top-drawer buck-raker would have once seemed as likely as (Joe) Biden moonlighting as a mime.' If that got a chuckle out of you, you'll enjoy the book."

If that doesn't get a chuckle out of you, you might be wondering what particular reason this book has to exist. Kakutani actually raises the question and isn't sure there is one, given the "miles" of coverage the presidential race received while it was being run and the "several" books published about it already (such as Alter's). But exist it does; and the journalistic rule of thumb "If you can't be first, be deepest" seems to have given way to "If you can't be first, be rudest."

Obama came into office with a mystique the size of Kennedy's. It's not his fault alone that he didn't get to keep it.

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