The smartest man in the room


President John F. Kennedy turned to his friend from Arkansas, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the man he had wanted as his Secretary of State before civil rights issues commended another man, and asked, “Bill?”

J. William Fulbright of Arkansas advocated military action, air strikes to take out the Russian missile sites. He wasn’t happy about it, he made clear, but it was better than the naval blockade others in the room were advocating. Fulbright reasoned that American fighter-bombers would be acting against Cuba and Cuba only, whereas intercepting Soviet ships in international waters would be viewed by Moscow as an act of war by the U.S.

Kennedy was startled: the dove had grown talons.

Fulbright, months earlier, had got wind of the impending invasion at the Bay of Pigs — a couple thousand CIA-backed Cuban exiles fooling themselves — and, aboard Air Force One, urged Kennedy to pull the plug on the assault. Cuba, Fulbright wrote in a memo he handed the President, might be “a thorn in the flesh, but it is not a dagger in the heart.”

The Arkansan proved prescient about the Bay of Pigs operation, which failed, but not the quarantine, which succeeded. Well, nobody bats a thousand, and most scholars of the period argue that had Kennedy taken Fulbright’s earlier advice the Soviets would not have installed nuclear weaponry only 90 miles from our shores. Nonetheless, the world would come to appreciate that Kennedy’s judgment, a half-century ago this month, proved superior to Fulbright’s.

Indeed, in researching his first-rate examination of JFK’s administration, journalist-historian Richard Reeves studied transcripts of (secretly) tape-recorded meetings of Kennedy and the country’s senior national security officials — the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Council, the State Department, the various intelligence agencies — and concluded that “clearly, Kennedy was the smartest man in the room.”

Irony, or a coincidence of the calendar, that the final debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, a dialogue devoted exclusively to foreign affairs, would occur during the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Fifty years to the day after Kennedy went on nationwide television to reveal to his countrymen that their worst nightmare might not be merely a bad dream, Messrs. Obama and Romney spent 90 minutes proclaiming their respective credentials for keeping Americans safe in their slumber.

But isn’t the economy the issue, the core question of the campaign? Of course. Which is why a discussion of national defense policy included so many mentions of swing states such as Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and — with all the talk of Iran and Israel — Florida, home to large numbers of American Jews. Too, the references to U.S. household incomes. And auto company bailouts. And American highways and bridges. And student test scores and health care reform. Debt, and deficits.

Thus the final Obama-Romney meeting of the season was, with some comparatively minor exceptions, the best and most illuminating (these things are relative) of the three debates. Why? If the exchange was less than a graduate tutorial in foreign affairs; if both candidates pushed the envelope, sometimes shredding it; if one or the other left voters wondering exactly when and how they would “red line” Iran to prevent it from perfecting nuclear weapons, or how fast U.S. combat troops would leave Afghanistan and how large a contingent would remain — all of that — voters, those who bothered to tune in, were better served than by either of the previous snarlfests. For the third debate drove home the unbreakable connection between American foreign and domestic policy.

Agriculture, manufacturing, retail, even the service sectors, all hostage (in these times, an appropriate term) to our relationships with other states other continents. Our deteriorating infrastructure, our sagging contributions to research and development, the debilitating investment deficit in public schools and higher education, the corrosive effect of medical expenditures on Gross Domestic Product — all problems as strategic to the American future as the underground centrifuges beneath the Iranian desert, the cut-rate wages of Asian factories and the lingering threat of terrorism.

Arkansas crops, Arkansas finished goods, Arkansas salaries — all at stake in how the nation engages with the larger world.

Mr. Obama presented himself, and well, as a steady hand on the foreign policy tiller. His rival established, and capably, that his name is Romney, not Strangelove. Whichever man prevails in two weeks will, as did Kennedy, confront threats to the personal safety of his countrymen; like Kennedy, he must reconcile their demands for immediate economic relief with his vision of the decades ahead. Unlike Kennedy, the 2012 winner must do so on a planet so cyber-connected that “borders” seem almost an abstract, and nations susceptible as never before to political and economic and cultural passions.

“Hawk” and “dove” are strategically irrelevant terms in the 21st century, which make it ever more important that we elect the smartest man in the room.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.