A Machiavellian model for Obama

Dana Milbank
Opinion writer November 4, 2011

Chris Matthews, the voluble host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” has written a compelling blueprint for President Obama’s reelection. But it doesn’t mention the current president.

Matthews’s new book, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero,” adds another volume to the already groaning shelf of Kennedy biographies, but this one, happily, isn’t just about Camelot or conspiracies. It’s also about the Machiavellian Kennedy, the political street fighter who with his brother encouraged opponents to believe they were “dangerous enemies” who preferred to be feared rather than loved. “Bobby was the one who’d gained the reputation for ruthlessness,” Matthews writes, “but Jack could be pitiless.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

This is the JFK who dispatched his brother to deliver mob-style threats to governors who didn’t back him in the 1960 primaries, and the JFK who threatened to expose corporate executives’ extramarital pursuits. As one Kennedy aide recounted, “Jack preferred killing a politician to wounding one. ‘A wounded tiger,’ he always said, ‘was more dangerous than either a living or dead one.’”

Reading these pages brought to mind the current president, who too often handles his tigers with stroking or submission. President Obama doesn’t need to sic the FBI on his opponents, but neither would it hurt him to put some fear in friends and foes alike as he pushes for jobs bills on the Hill and begins a difficult reelection campaign.

When Republicans celebrate the sainted Ronald Reagan, they make the mistake of recalling his strong conservative convictions but omit any acknowledgment of his long record of compromise with the opposition. Likewise, Democrats draw inspiration from Kennedy’s stirring phrases, but they forget that he was also a political killer.

Obama seemed to understand this early in his term, when Rahm Emanuel played his Bobby Kennedy, keeping recalcitrant lawmakers in line. Now, though, Obama has no bad cop in his White House — his chief of staff, Bill Daley, is this town’s Mr. Congeniality — and the president himself seems congenitally unable to intimidate. He learned the art of Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric but neglected the kneecapping that supported it.

Matthews recounts the story of how William “Onions” Burke, the Massachusetts Democratic chairman, humiliated Kennedy in 1956 by going back on his pledge to deliver primary delegates for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, whom Kennedy hoped to join on the ticket. Kennedy “had no choice but to destroy the man,” Matthews wrote. He worked the state’s committeemen to oust Burke as party chairman, then had Burke kept from the room by Boston cops during the vote. Kennedy’s candidate easily won.

In 1960, when Ohio Gov. Mike DiSalle resisted supporting Kennedy in that state’s presidential primary, Kennedy threatened him: “Mike, it’s time to [expletive] or get off the pot. You’re either going to come out for me or we are going to run a delegation against you in Ohio and we’ll beat you.” When DiSalle resisted still, Kennedy sent his brother to Columbus to “see DiSalle and make sure he is going to meet his commitments.” Bobby, Kennedy man Ken O’Donnell recounted, “threatened him.”

A similar thing happened with Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes. As O’Donnell described it: “We ushered the governor into a bedroom and Bobby went in and the governor was not happy, looking over his shoulder for some assistance. But there was none forthcoming.” Tawes relented.

An adviser to California Gov. Pat Brown, likewise, said “threatening. . . is the only accurate word” to describe the Kennedys’ treatment of Brown. They “ran a very aggressive war of nerves.” And woe to the man who resisted, such as Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence. With Lawrence in the audience, Kennedy gave a speech “kicking him good and hard where it hurts the most,” O’Donnell described.

The intimidation, naturally, worked on the Republicans, too. “They were ruthless,” one Nixon man said, in Matthews’s account. “They scared the [expletive] out of me.” They did more than that to Roger Blough, the U.S. Steel president, who defied Kennedy in 1961 by raising prices. “You have made a terrible mistake,” Kennedy told him. Subpoenas flew, FBI agents marched into steel executives’ offices, and Kennedy spoke about IRS agents examining “hotel bills and nightclub expenses [that] would be hard to get by the weekly wives’ bridge group out at the country club.”

Kennedy used harsher words than the “socialist” Obama has ever voiced, claiming the executives’ “pursuit of private power and profit” showed “such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans.” The price increase was rolled back.

“It was a tough way to operate,” Bobby Kennedy said, but “we couldn’t afford to lose.”

Sometimes, that’s how it must be. Can Obama understand that?

danamilbank@washpost.com

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