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."
Wofford, 82, said he felt the echoes of that time.
"The biggest comparison to me is Franklin Roosevelt, how I felt at age 7 when I heard his inaugural address, with a huge number of Americans unemployed."
It was an age when a president could be a child's hero.
"Within six months, there were 300,000 employed in a Civilian Conservation Corps," Wofford said. "By '36, at age 10, Roosevelt was my man. . . . Roosevelt was the president until I was 19. He did have the knack of great talking, and being a teaching president, reasoning with the American people. He had the determination not for a specific ideological solution, but for action."
Obama, he said, has that same teaching instinct, with a deliberateness and ability to listen that Kennedy sometimes lacked.
"Kennedy was a wonderful character, but he was impatient," Wofford said. "He didn't want to be bored with life. . . . In 10 minutes, he ticked off the things he wanted to do as president."
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals, appears to be a kind of template for the Obama transition, said she, too, saw the FDR comparison, especially in temperament.
"There was an internal self-confidence and a serenity" in Roosevelt, she said in an interview. "During the worst days of the Depression and even the day of Pearl Harbor, not knowing what to do, FDR calmly sat at his desk, absorbing all the information and deciding. Obama, too, retained a kind of serenity throughout the campaign."
She compared Obama's speech on race, which he gave in Philadelphia and which grappled with complex ideas about racial identity and prejudice, to the fireside chats in which FDR patiently explained complex economics to the masses.
Thurston Clarke, author of The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America, said he had been studying Obama's speeches in anticipation of the inauguration and saw clear echoes of RFK.
"His delivery is so kind of cool and JFK-like that the similar passionate words, they don't come across as passionate. If you read them, they come across as much more passionate."
Clarke noted that at a commemoration of RFK's 80th birthday in 2005, Obama, finishing his first year in the Senate and invited by the Kennedy family to speak, noted the ongoing influence of Bobby. He continued, Clarke said, with words "right out of the RFK playbook."
"Obama says, 'Somewhere another child goes hungry in a neighborhood just blocks from one where a family is too full to eat another bite. . . . If we are to shine as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world, we have to be respected not just for the might of our military but for the reach of our ideals,' " themes he would revisit in his speech on election night.
Obama went on to note that RFK had practiced politics that "at its heart was deeply moral, based on the notion that in this world there is a right and a wrong [and] that it is our job to organize our laws and our lives to recognize the difference."
After the ceremony, RFK's widow, Ethel Kennedy, was quoted as saying of Obama, "He feels it just like Bobby did."
While JFK's daughter, Caroline, said this year that people had told her Obama inspired them in a way they had not felt since her father, one of RFK's sons, Max, last week suggested similarities to his dad.
He said on MSNBC that advisers during the '68 campaign had been telling his father to do this or that. His father replied, "Sometimes I think people just want to hear the truth."
"I see that courage in Barack Obama, the moral authority, the willingness to take on issues," Max Kennedy said. "When he made that speech in Philadelphia, I thought that was the end of the election. That willingness to lose an election over principle is something we haven't seen in a long time."
But for the most idealistic of the younger generation, the "Ask Not" symbolism of JFK and his call to service, his desire for change from the bottom up, is still the Holy Grail.
Rajeev Goyal, national coordinator for More Peace Corps, an organization that wants to double the size of the Peace Corps, created in 1961 at the direction of JFK and an example of Kennedy's still far-from-realized "Ask what you can do for your country" vision, said the election had "changed everything."
"There is that energy again," said Goyal, 29, who went to Nepal with the Peace Corps. "The Peace Corps has a kind of imagery and romance about it still. I think Obama has revived that in his message of really saying, 'Are you willing to sacrifice?' "