Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama's "Sputnik Moment"

“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon,” President Obama said last night. “But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.”

In what was perhaps the most memorable line in his speech, the president went on to call 2011 “our generation's Sputnik moment.”  As a citizen, I like the point he was trying to make. But as a speechwriter and a student of American history, I find Obama’s use of the term “Sputnik moment” questionable for two reasons.

First, being a history geek, I know what Sputnik was. In 1957 the Soviets achieved the early lead in the space race by launching the world’s first man-made satellite into orbit. But, I’m not entirely sure that “Sputnik” is a term which resonates with most citizens, especially younger people who voted so overwhelmingly for Obama.

If you were alive in 1957, you remember the sense of panic and national hand-wringing which accompanied news of Sputnik’s launch. Otherwise, the meaning, and the context of the point Obama was trying to make, is lost.

Second, the term “Sputnik moment” implies failure and national defeat, reminding us of the first of many moments that the Soviets beat us in the space race. People forget that, in the early part of the space race, the Russians were the first to have “firsts.” They launched the first animal, man, and woman into space. Their cosmonauts had orbited the earth repeatedly years before John Glenn did. America did not begin to achieve real parity with the Soviets until the Gemini phase of NASA’s space program launched in the mid-1960s.

Invoking Sputnik as Obama did is like thinking of the Revolutionary War as the outcome of our “Boston Massacre moment,” or victory in World War II as starting with our “Pearl Harbor moment.”  

President Obama’s point – striving for one national goal triggers a wave of innovation that can take us into directions we did not even imagine – is valid.  I just think that asking Americans to strive for another “Apollo 11 moment” would have made that point in a cleaner, crisper, more resonant, and more inspirational way. 

Reminder the American people of the dark place where a long journey began is far less motivational than invoking the victorious manner in which it ended.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Our FINAL Monday Night At The Waterfront - No, Really This Time

If you think you've read the following blog entry before, well, you pretty much have.

In December I invited people to join Joe Steffen and I at the Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point to discuss politics and witness the final performance of our favorite local singer, Bonnie Leigh Boswell, at that venerable venue. Well, you responded, and we managed to cobble together a pretty good group that night.

The only thing is, they subsequently extended Bonnie's gig for another month. So, her actual final WTF performance will be this Monday, January 31 starting at around 9:30 or so.

Similarly, this will be my last regular appearance at the WTF. With Bonnie no longer a Monday night staple, I have no real impetus to keep going. Plus, the place is becoming a strange hybrid of the old Waterfront and TGIFridays. In a word...yuck.

So, if you can muster the energy, do join us as we bring a final end to our Monday night tradition. I can't guarantee it will be as dramatic or culturally consequential as the final episode of M*A*S*H, but I'm sure it will be a lot of fun.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Redistricting: How Greedy Will The Dems Get?

Maryland Democrats’ favorite decennial political bloodsport – redistricting – is about to begin.

Those of us who follow politics in Maryland closely wonder just how greedy Democrats will be in trying to expand their dominance of the state’s congressional delegation. If history is any indication, the answer to that question is, “Very greedy.”

In 1992, Senate President Mike Miller unveiled his infamous “people’s plan” for redistricting. What it basically did is throw Helen Bentley and Wayne Gilchrest – two of the state’s three GOP representatives – into the same district. Even the Baltimore Sun came out strongly against it, calling the plan “monstrous.” In the end, Bentley played the ace up her sleeve – her friendship with Governor Schaefer – and Gilchrest wound up running against, and defeating, Democratic Rep. Tom McMillan.

Ten years later, state Democrats pushed a two-pronged attack. First, they moved the Eighth District, then represented by moderate Republican Connie Morella, into Prince George’s County. Then they moved the Second District, then represented by Bob Ehrlich, into parts of Baltimore City, tacking areas of Harford County onto the First District. In other words, they created a district which Ehrlich could likely win again if he opted not to run for governor, but which Democrats would likely pick up if he did. In the end, the Democrats’ machinations were successful, as both districts flipped.

As the latest round of redistricting looms on the horizon, state Republicans hold the same two congressional seats – the First and the Sixth – they did after the 2002 elections. That the Democrats will try to put the squeeze on Republicans again is beyond question. The state’s population has grown and, in terms of voter registration, Democrats have made impressive gains during the past decade, while Republicans steadily lost ground. The only two questions I have: Will the Democrats go for an 8-0 or 7-1 scenario, and, if they choose the latter scenario, who will their immediate target be – Andy Harris or Roscoe Bartlett?

Most of the people I have talked to believe that the Democrats risk destabilizing some of their incumbents if they go after both Bartlett and Harris. I tend to agree. Therefore, I think that they will target one of them for immediate defeat – likely Harris, given his freshman status and the fact that he’s not exactly on Mike Miller’s Christmas card list – while making Bartlett’s district a little more Democratic so that, when he steps down, it is a bit more competitive than it is now.

As for Harris, I have heard numerous scenarios on how the Democrats might redraw the lines of the First District. One possibility is for the upper shore portion of the district to be spliced to the Sixth along with Harford County. The new First could consist of the lower shore, parts of West Baltimore, and even a sliver of Prince George’s County. Some of the portions of Eastern and Central Baltimore County presently represented by Harris could be absorbed by the Second District. Its current congressman, Dutch Ruppersberger, remains well known and popular in that area.

As for the new Sixth, it would span the entire top portion of the state. It seems that the Democrats could  remove slices of solidly GOP areas – for example, they could take a portion of Carroll County and tack it onto Rep. Elijah Cumming’s Seventh District without seriously destabilizing him – to make it more competitive in the future. The district’s changing demographics, especially in Frederick County, which is emerging as a bedroom community for D. C. commuters, facilitate this new competitiveness as well.

Should the Democrats target Bartlett instead of Harris, they could presumably give Harris all of Harford, moving the First District into Northern Baltimore County, while bringing the Sixth farther south into Montgomery County.

So, I think the Democrats will bow to their avaricious instincts as far as redistricting is concerned. Mitigating that greed will be the party’s six incumbents, who will advocate in favor of a conservative approach to redistricting which preserves if not strengthens the Democratic advantage in each district.

That said, I strongly suspect that one of the participants in this politicized game of musical chairs will find himself without a seat once the music has stopped.

Friday, January 21, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: Jacobs, Pipkin New Senate Leaders

I have just been told that Maryland Senate Republicans have elected Nancy Jacobs as their new Minority Leader, and E. J. Pipkin as the new Minority Whip.

Jacobs replaces Senator Allan Kittleman, whose socially moderate ways irked some of the caucus's more conservative members.

Still, if towing the line is what Senate Republicans demand of their leaders, then Pipkin is definitely a curious choice. Pipkin has exhibited his independent streak on a number of occasions. Now that he has the added stature of being a member of the party leadership, I have to imagine we will be seeing more of it in the future.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Senator Allan Kittleman: "Free At Last"

The 2011 session of the Maryland General Assembly has just started, but it’s already easy to predict who one of the first “winners” of the session is: Senator Allan Kittleman.

Today Senator Kittleman voluntarily relinquished his position as Senate Minority Leader in response to concerns within the caucus about his plans to introduce legislation allowing civil unions in Maryland as an alternative to gay marriage.

Though Kittleman surrenders his post, what he gains more than offsets that loss.

First, he defines himself as the kind of fiscally conservative/socially moderate Republican who appeals to suburban swing voters. This formula has worked most reliably for upwardly-mobile Republicans in Maryland (including Bob Ehrlich, three-time nominee for governor).

Second, Kittleman positions himself for a “See, I told you so” moment. In other words, if gay marriage proponents succeed in enacting it into law, unhappy opponents may give him retrospective credit for offering a reasonable middle course. If gay marriage fails as a ballot referendum in 2012, supporters unhappy that they ended up with nothing after years of effort may do the same thing.

Third, he raises his profile in a manner beyond the level that continued service in an obscure legislative post would have allowed. 

Often times, I have heard Kittleman’s name mentioned as a future candidate for higher office. However, most of that chatter hinged upon the goodwill surrounding his family name, or his youth and successes in increasingly Democratic Howard County.

Should he continue to define himself as an outspoken moderate and critic of fiscal irresponsibility, he will serve as an important walking contraction to Democrats who attempt to portray all Republicans in Maryland as ideologues beholden to Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, or other political bogeymen.

I read a lot of history. Kittleman’s decision, and the opportunities resulting from it, reminds me of an anecdote I once read about President Lyndon B. Johnson.

During the push to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, an activist asked LBJ why he, a Southerner, was working so hard to pass legislation he had fought so ardently before.

“I’m going to answer that by quoting a friend of yours,” Johnson replied. “‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.’” No longer beholden to a conservative constituency in Texas or the Southern Democrats who ruled the Senate, Johnson was free to act on principle.

Now that Senator Kittleman no longer has to worry about managing the members of a tiny legislative caucus, he can speak his mind, build his brand, and take his place on the bench of Maryland’s rising Republican stars.  

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ronald Reagan and Alzheimer's Disease

Ron Reagan, son of the former president, has made waves in the media with his sensational claim that his father developed Alzheimer’s disease while he was still in the White House, perhaps as early as his first term.

Reagan outlines his claim in a new book about his father to be released next week, just in time for the centennial of President Reagan’s birth.

The younger Reagan points to his father’s shaky performance in the first presidential debate with Walter Mondale in 1984 as proof of his claim. He also states that doctors treating President Reagan for a concussion and subdural hematoma after a riding accident in July 1989 – just six months after he left the presidency – found evidence of Alzheimer’s then.

I find the timing of Ron Reagan’s announcement somewhat opportunistic, and its substance counter-intuitive.

President Reagan adhered to an extensive public speaking schedule (including televised addresses) and participated in 37 televised news conferences, always under the eye of an ideologically hostile media.  If the man were losing his mind, I think someone would have noticed.

So I went back and looked at what President Reagan’s two principal biographers – Lou Cannon and Edmund Morris – had to say on the subject.

Both agree that Reagan’s condition was formally diagnosed by doctors at the Mayo Clinic in August 1994, but that his declining mental acuity was very apparent a year before that.

Cannon cites a birthday event held at the Reagan Presidential Library in February 1993 in which the president repeated verbatim a toast he had just delivered. In his book Dutch, Morris states that Reagan’s condition was “provisionally diagnosed” as Alzheimer’s by Mayo Clinic doctors in 1993.

Morris pinpoints the beginning of Reagan’s decline to the aforementioned riding accident. Nancy Reagan herself has said that she and Reagan’s doctors both believe that the injuries sustained in that accident triggered the onset of the disease. While the accident may have initiated Reagan's decline, that doesn't mean he developed Alzheimer's overnight.

But both biographers offer solid evidence that Reagan was not afflicted by the disease as president or even early in his post-presidency.

Cannon reported finding a “lucid and reflective” Reagan when he interviewed him on February 6, 1991. He also references the 29 stump appearances and videotapes Reagan made for Republican candidates in 1990, as well as the very well-received speech he delivered at the 1992 Republican convention.

If Reagan were in the throes of Alzheimer’s, then the people around him – especially his wife – would not have allowed him to participate in these activities.

Further, Morris - who had unprecedented access to Reagan throughout his presidency and afterwards - calls Reagan’s extensive White House diaries, “uniform and style and cognitive content from beginning to end.” He finds, “no hint of mental deterioration beyond occasional repetitions and non sequiturs; and if those were suggestive of early dementia, many diarists including myself would have reason to worry.”

So, my gut tells me that Ron Reagan’s eleventh hour disclosure was for the purpose of leveraging the anniversary of his father's birth in order to sell books. Unless he can point to clear evidence of Reagan being impaired while president, I’m inclined to believe what his biographers wrote.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Michael Steele: OUT

Today, Maryland's Man of Steele ran smack dab into a wall of Kryptonite.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s Michael Steele’s concession speech during today’s vote for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. Steele dropped out after the fourth ballot, after consistently losing support during each stage of the balloting.

Clearly it was a speech Mr. Steele did not want to have to deliver, but I thought he soldiered through despite his obvious emotions and his disappointment. Some in the media have described the speech as gracious. It was, but I also thought it had something of an edge to it.

At one point, he seemed a little bitter when he complained about the "noise" surrounding his tenure, and voiced his hope the RNC members “appreciated” his legacy as chairman. Then I thought the speech might veer into “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” territory, but it didn’t.

I had a lot of optimism when Steele became RNC chairman. Having observed him in close quarters in the State House as Lieutenant Governor, I thought he was gregarious, charismatic, and polished. He also delivered a consistently cogent message to audiences even more effectively than did Governor Ehrlich, for whom message discipline was a constant challenge.  I thought these skills would serve Steele well while stumping for GOP candidates, appearing on the Sunday morning news shows, and performing the other routine activities one expects from a national party chairman.

But Steele became enamored of the celebrity of his new position shortly after winning it. This led him to grant a series of wide-ranging “Who is Michael Steele” interviews to the non-political press, sometimes producing the kinds of gaffes which came to define his RNC tenure.

Unless you’re a political junkie like me, you have no business knowing or caring who chairs either major party.

Successful chairmen are the ones who quietly roll up their sleeves and commit to performing mundane and often thankless party building activities.  Aside from serving as party spokesman on occasion, chairmen belong in the background. A chairman’s success should be gauged not by his own celebrity, but only when his efforts result in more candidates who get to bask in the public adulation of winning on election night.

Unfortunately, Steele never was able to get past some of his early gaffes, as well as allegations of mismanagement at the RNC. In the process, he gained many critics and a few powerful adversaries – including two former RNC chairmen, a nationally syndicated conservative talk show host, and George Bush's political mastermind. In the end, presiding over successful 2010 midterm elections was not enough to save Steele. RNC members clearly concluded that the party won in spite of, rather than because of, his leadership.

So where else is Steele going to go? I’m guessing not back to Maryland. He’s run for statewide office twice on his own and lost both times. Further, a poll done last summer had his approval rating in Maryland at 19 percent. My guess is he rejoins the talking head circuit for a while, and takes a swing at reviving his law practice.

I'm equally curious to see where some of Steele's senior staff lands.

A onetime aide to former Maryland Democratic State Senator Leo E. Green, Belinda Cook worked as an office manager for Steele as Lieutenant Governor. She quickly clawed her way up the ranks, becoming Steele's go-to gal at both GOPAC and the RNC. As fellow blogger Joe Steffen reported, she is now living in oceanfront splendor in Florida, and working in a senior capacity on the staff of the 2012 GOP convention. Now that her patron is gone, will the beach party end for her, too?

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that my single biggest disappointment with Steele stems from purely personal reasons.

Despite working with (and occasionally writing speeches for) Steele in the Ehrlich Administration, and penning a hagiographic op-ed piece about him in the Baltimore Sun after he became chairman, Steele and his team never sent me an invitation to the infamous lesbian bondage club fundraiser held in Los Angeles. Everyone knows I love LA and its edgy nightclubs, and certainly enjoy GOP politics, so including me seemed like a no-brainer. But Chairman Hizzle's hookup never came.

Sigh…

Still, I forgive you, Michael. I wish you the very best in your future endeavors.  And, if you hear of any future plans to hold a fundraiser at Score’s in Baltimore, show me some love, OK?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Westboro Baptist Church To Protest 9-Year-Old's Funeral

Take a moment to read this news item I came across about the Westboro Baptist Church’s (WBC) plans to picket the funeral of Christina Taylor Green, the nine year old girl killed during the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last Saturday in Tucson, AZ.

I’m sure many of you have heard of this outfit. They’re a bunch of right-wing religious zealots based in Kansas. The only thing they seem to love more than The Lord – and, by “The Lord,” they seem to have a partiality for the Old Testament version of God – is publicity. That’s why they consistently pick the most inappropriate events to protest. They know that the media will not be able to resist the temptation to make them part of the larger story.

(And, by writing about them here, I realize that I am giving them a morsel of the attention they want. But I decided that the point I want to make is worth it.)

First, they protested the funerals of AIDS victims. When this became too cliché and predictable, they moved onto the funerals of military KIAs. Their new attention-grabbing strategy seems to be protesting the funerals of people who die during national tragedies.

Sometimes, the WBC’s protests veer off into the realm of the surreal. My friend Felicite and I saw Lady Gaga in concert last year in Oklahoma City. Sure enough, the WBC was there, courting the attention protesting the nation’s biggest pop star would get them.

I tend to find outspoken ignorance more entertaining than offensive. So for me, the spectacle of sign-waving troglodytes protesting a singer famous for wearing a electrified bra which shoots sparks gave the event a charming degree of absurdity.

Of the six people who died in Tucson, they obviously chose the child’s funeral because it will likely draw the most media attention. That’s obvious to me, and it has to be obvious to members of the media.

This is why I wish the media would wake up and make a concerted effort to stop enabling the WBC. They can do this by simply denying them the publicity they crave.  

Far more people have learned about the WBC from the media’s coverage of their activities than through their individual publicity stunts. The media did not create this beast. But it certainly nurtured it and allowed it to grow.

Fred Phelps, head of the WBC, may be crazy and offensive, but he isn’t stupid. He knows how to grab attention. The media needs to respond to this cagey aggression with editorial restraint. If the message is irrelevant to the story unfolding around the protest, then the media should learn to do what grieving families at funerals have had to do for years: Ignore them whether they show up or not.

Not everyone who demands a soapbox, or shows up at places where they know a phalanx of television camera awaits them, deserves to get the attention they want.  Pissing on the sidewalk never warrants media attention – even when the sidewalk is in front of the White House.

The members of the Westboro Baptist Church have a constitutionally-protected right to free speech. No one should ever deny them the right to express their views. Indeed, I think legislative attempts to ban protesters from funerals or other tasteless locations are of dubious constitutionality. And, they give groups like the WBC yet another venue – the courts – from which to push their agendas.

But nothing in the Constitution says that people who engage in bad behavior should always be rewarded with an even bigger microphone.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Thoughts On The Shooting In Tucson

For most of the day I have been following the media’s coverage of the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona. Today’s shooting left five people dead – including a federal judge and a nine-year-old child – and many others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, gravely wounded.

I’m old enough to remember other times this has happened in the past.

On April 13, 1976, a madman walked into a Baltimore City office searching for then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Unable to find him, the gunman instead shot and killed Councilman Dominic Leone and wounded two other people.

Two and a half years later, another madman climbed through an unguarded window in San Francisco City Hall. Disgruntled City Supervisor Dan White unloaded his revolver into Mayor George Moscone. He reloaded, walked down the hall, and did the same thing to Supervisor Harvey Milk.

I was a child when I heard about those prior two incidents on the radio. But they left me with the same sad and hollow feeling I experienced when I learned about today’s attack.

But, the news also hit a little closer to home, too.

Having worked for two Members of Congress, I occasionally participated in the same kinds of well-publicized constituent outreach events Congresswoman Giffords and her staff were conducting today. Given the randomness of today’s attack, the fact that it never happened when I found myself in similar circumstances gives me pause.

Whenever one of these tragedies occurs, people want to make quick sense of why it occurred. They also want to glean the motivations of the person who did the shooting, even before all the facts are known.

Little is yet known about the suspect in the Tucson shootings, 22-year-old Jared Loughner. But the media has reported some of his past writings and videos published on YouTube. Nonsensical and unintelligible in nature, they offer a window into the tortured mind of someone struggling with deep-seated mental health issues.

These rantings make one thing fairly clear: Loughner’s own dark, strange, and highly subjective fixations were the motivations behind his actions today.

Therefore, I hope people will not use this tragedy to score political points, as have some liberal bloggers.  

Absent any supporting evidence, it is not appropriate to blame Loughner’s actions on Sarah Palin, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, or any political bogeymen. That serves an agenda, but it does not serve the facts as we know them.

Gun control advocates will try to turn this into a debate on the right to bear arms – a right, incidentally, which Congresswoman Giffords, a gun owner herself, strongly supported in the past. Few would dispute that crazy, violent people should not be allowed to own guns. But it's inappropriate to blame the weapon and not the man.

So, until we know more about why this happened, let’s resist the temptation to inject partisan politics into this matter. Instead, let’s keep the victims and their families in our hearts. Let’s not be afraid to be angry that this happened. And, most of all, let’s pray that this never happens again.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Kendel Ehrlich's WBAL Radio Show: OUT

The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik reports that Kendel Ehrlich is suddenly leaving her Saturday morning radio show on WBAL, and will be replaced by Clarence “C4” Mitchell IV effective Saturday, January 8, 2011.

On his blog Zurawik writes: “Miller and Kiernan said Ehrlich was making the move in an effort to spend more time at Saturday sports events involving their family.”

I heard rumblings about Kendel’s possible departure a few days ago. In fact, it was a topic of discussion at Congressman Andy Harris’s swearing-in on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, I’m told.

In any event, I heard from a source close to WBAL that things went down a little differently than what Miller and Kiernan told Zurawik.

In fact, Kendel Ehrlich’s contract was about to expire, and WBAL executives made her a new contract offer that was not to her liking. They were so far apart, in fact, that Kendel decided to walk.

I’m sure this is disappointing for Kendel, who – by all accounts – greatly enjoyed hosting that radio show both with her husband and on a solo basis.

In fact, Shannon Hoffman of the Capital News Service, who just last month wrote a story about Kendel and her possible future ambitions, documented her enthusiasm for the radio show. 

She quotes Kendel as saying:  "I'm certainly really focused right now on what I'm doing – being with the kids and the radio – at this point in time." 

And, she writes: "Some said continuing the show is evidence of her political aspirations, but she said it was just too much fun to give up. 'I love the forum because I love the interaction with the audience and the ability to talk with people directly and unfiltered ... It's one of the more unfiltered mediums out there,' she said."

Regardless of why Kendel is suddenly leaving a radio gig she obviously loved, there is a big winner coming out of this. No, it's not C4. It's Bob Ehrlich’s erstwhile body man Greg Massoni. At least he gets his Saturday mornings back.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated with American history. That was partially a function of growing up at the time of the Bicentennial, when everyone was talking about the events and personalities of the Revolutionary War. Over time, my interest coalesced around post-World War II history, especially the period between 1960 and 1970.

What fascinates me about that particular period of history is that it was a time of tremendous change dominated by individuals who, seen from today’s perspective, seem larger than life.

Think about it.

Four men served as president during that period: Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

Eisenhower had conquered Adolf Hitler long before he ever became president. A legitimate war hero buoyed by his father's wealth, Kennedy contended with missiles in Cuba. A legendarily effective Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson pushed the historic 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts through Congress as president. Five times nominated for national office, Richard Nixon ended the Vietnam War and engaged in high diplomatic theatre by going to China.

Of course, Kennedy’s presidency ended in tragedy, Johnson’s amid war and civil unrest, and Nixon’s due to scandal. Still, in a perverse way, the epic manners in which these presidencies fell only served to elevate each man’s status as a larger than life historical figure.

Besides the presidents, other figures of major historical importance dominated the political landscape: Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Daley. Others – like California Governor Ronald Reagan – started their ascendancy. Even the decade’s biggest electoral loser – Senator Barry Goldwater – has since been elevated in reputation beyond his defeat because of his role in launching the conservative movement.

This all causes me to ponder two questions.

First, why was there such a cluster of historical heavyweights on the scene during that period?

Perhaps it was because events like the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the Cold War, and the space race provided a dramatic backdrop against which these individuals could rise and be noticed.

Perhaps it was because the media universe was limited to three major broadcast networks and a few opinion-making daily newspapers, meaning that these individuals received a disproportionate share of the attention.

Or, perhaps these individuals did not seem quite as historic at the time as they do now. Maybe forty years of hagiography and historical rumination has elevated them to their current status. I tend not to buy this explanation. My sense is that people who lived in the 1960s understood they were living in significant times dominated by a handful of consequential leaders. And, in three cases, assassination contributed to the  legend-building.

The other question I have: Who are today’s counterparts to Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and King?

As I look around, I am not entirely sure there are any.

Barack Obama is the first black president, so that certainly gives him historical cache. But so far, he has seemed overwhelmed by the presidency, and has yet to emerge as the transformational figure some hoped he would be.    

George W. Bush served the country during the 9/11 attacks, two wars, and an economic meltdown. Presidents who serve during especially difficult periods are often looked upon favorably by historians, even when they left office deeply unpopular (as did Harry Truman). A recent poll demonstrates that Bush’s retrospective approval rating among Americans has climbed from 34 percent to 47 percent in just two years. Still, Bush’s rehabilitation has a long way to go.

As for the first President Bush, he was a talented commander in chief, but will likely be regarded as an extension of Ronald Reagan – or even an interlude between Reagan and two-term President Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton was a popular president who benefited from a surging economy and, ironically, having his political opponents in charge of Congress. There is no doubt that he was one of the most politically savvy presidents in history. But his pragmatism, penchant for scandal, and the relative calm and prosperity of the 1990s  mitigate the perception that he was a game-changing political figure.

Jimmy Carter? Give me a break…

Also, when one looks at the crop of current and recent presidential hopefuls – John Kerry, John McCain, Al Gore, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee – none yet seems to measure up in gravitas to the 1960s figures I mentioned before.

Of course, John Kennedy did not start out as JFK – the marbleized figure we remember. Events and the personalities and talents of the individuals themselves shape a leader’s legacy.

Because of the growth of cable news, the Internet, YouTube, social media, and other sources of information, we may never again see figures who dominated the agenda and the spotlight as thoroughly as the leaders of the 1960s did. Today every politico who wants a microphone and an audience can likely find one somewhere.

I still think America is capable of producing larger than life leaders. Moving forward, the real challenge is going to be having the ability to look beyond the din and recognize them when they emerge.