PHILADELPHIA ? As the country prepares for the presidency of Barack Obama, viscerally, at least, echoes of JFK are unavoidable.
The youth, the passing of the generational torch, the cool style, the culturally liberating presence of a writer-intellectual, the beguiling kids, the instantly iconic wife, the adoration of the world.
Especially this weekend ? with the 45th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, a date normally suffused with the futility of tragedy ? many Americans have a palpable sense that something taken from the nation has been reclaimed.
"It took a long time, but we got it back," said Bruce Kuklick, a University of Pennsylvania historian of the 20th century, who was 12 in 1963.
Each year at this time, he said, he tries to explain to his three sons just how much it all meant to him, and how much was lost.
This year, Kuklick said, with the extraordinary election night still resonant, the "same kinds of culturally liberating hope" restored, he will say, simply: "See how good it is? That's what you missed."
But for some, the comparisons to JFK go only so far (and, for others, maybe too far, given that Obama has not even taken office). For many, the Obama presidency seems destined to recall, in more substantial ways, FDR. Or, in temperament and transition, Lincoln. Or, perhaps even more powerfully, the unfulfilled legacy of Bobby Kennedy, who would have turned 83 last Thursday.
An impressive group of mentors, but also, particularly for a student of history like Obama, perhaps a daunting Mount Rushmore over his shoulder.
The comparisons to JFK bring solace to Harris Wofford, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. Just as all the young Obama volunteers were enamored of their candidate, Wofford was inspired in his youth by JFK, then campaigned for him and worked in his administration on civil rights. But although he embraced Obama with the same fervor, Wofford pointed out the differences are stark.
In 1960, people were basically satisfied with their country during a time of prosperity, he noted. Kennedy's youth and intellect were refreshing after the just-turned-70, golf-playing Dwight D. Eisenhower, but not yet urgent.
As tempting as the JFK comparisons are ? as the Obamas seem likely to evoke the Kennedys' cultured forwardness and storied charm and vigor (or "vigah, in the parlance of the Boston Brahmin) minus the nannies, the personal ponies, and the Hyannis Port compound ? Wofford and others say 2008 feels more like the early '30s than the early '60s.
"Yes, there is the call to public service of John Kennedy, the wit and coolness, the sense of humor about the human condition, the belief that politics is our way of self-government, despite the failings," Wofford said in a phone interview.
"Here's the big difference. In 1960, it was a time when the country thought we were on the right track. The number-one campaign problem: to try to convey to voters, however much they liked Eisenhower, that we hadn't been moving forward with any dynamism or creativity. There was no crisis. His problem was stirring enough people to want some change. Very different time."