Virtual Obama, Virtual JFK

We are in that damn car always driving in Dallas past the depository. We care about these minutes because we know the world completely changed after them.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was a different critter than John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kennedy had been in war, seen action, nearly been killed, was a war hero. Johnson was on the sidelines during the war. LBJ was in a way -- and I mean no disrespect to the man who declared War on Poverty -- the first chicken hawk. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. In his farewell address to the nation in 1961, Eisenhower had warned against the military-industrial complex. And his successor took the warning to heart.

As we decide on another presidentiad, as Whitman called it, we must take it all very seriously. We can't have another president pursuing the well-known Bush Doctrine, bombing now and asking questions later. In this light, I urge you to see a new film, Virtual JFK: Vietnam, If Kennedy Had Lived, by Koji Masutani, now at the Film Forum in New York through September 30.

Its guiding spirit, Professor James Blight of Brown University, examines the Kennedy presidency from the standpoint of war and peace. His idea is simple: "It makes a big difference who we elect as president in matters of war and peace."Virtual JFKsucceeds on the two most important levels: its argument is persuasive, and it works as documentary art. It is an extraordinary portrait of someone thinking, and a president at that.

Professor Blight carefully takes us through six crises in JFK's presidency, involving Cuba, Laos, Berlin, and Vietnam. In each of them, almost all of Kennedy's advisers wanted him to go to war, but Kennedy stepped back, and found a way through negotiation. JFK wanted his epitaph to read, "He kept the peace," and Virtual JFK: Vietnam, If Kennedy Had Lived shows him diligently doing that. At one point in the film, Kennedy says his goal is to find "solutions to serve the world, the human race."

And finally, Blight shows quite convincingly that, in the year preceding his assassination, Kennedy was carefully planning to withdraw the 16,000 U.S. military advisors from Vietnam he had stationed there. The goal was to have all of them back home soon after his inauguration in 1965. Then came Dallas. And LBJ waging simultaneous wars on poverty and in Vietnam. By the time Johnson decided to not run for a second full term, on March 31, 1968, there were 500,000 troops in Vietnam, 20,000 American soldiers and a million Vietnamese had been killed in the war.

Barack Obama has a temperament very similar to JFK. Ted and Caroline Kennedy supported him in the primaries, they said, because of that similarity. Both JFK and Barack Obama look for "solutions to serve the world, the human race." As we work to elect Obama and then start cleaning up the mess Bush made, we might use those words as mantra.