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Mr Obama, Mr Kennedy, and Mr Shandy

By Michael J. Smith on Sunday November 2, 2008 03:04 PM

I was recently delighted to read -- okay, to skim -- a six-thousand-word essay by two savants named James Blight and Janet Lang, purporting to answer the question, "does it matter who's president?"

Naturally, B&L come down on the affirmative. Their argument rests on John F Kennedy -- not, however, the actual, historical, indicative-mood John F Kennedy, he of the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, but rather, what our authors call "Virtual JFK": the subjunctive-mood JFK whom we "would" have seen if the real JFK had lived past 1963.

According to B&L, the subjunctive JFK is a very different and much nicer fella -- not at all like the dismal indicative one whom prosaic history delineates. And B&L feel quite confident they can chart with precision the parallel-world movements of their vastly improved ectoplasmic construct (italics mine):

  • If President Kennedy had lived and been reelected in 1964, we believe he would not have Americanized the conflict in South Vietnam.
  • We believe JFK would have continued the withdrawal of U.S. advisers from Vietnam that had begun during his presidency.
  • Kennedy’s successor, Johnson, by deciding to Americanize the Vietnam War, reversed the process JFK had set in motion.
  • Thus, we believe the identity of the occupant of the White House made all the difference: between a conflict that would have become little more than a footnote in U.S. history if Kennedy had lived, and the catastrophe we now know as the American war in Vietnam and in which millions perished.
B&L's technique for predicting (postdicting? transdicting? phantasmadicting?) the behavior of nonexistent persons -- which possesses, they claim, "something approximating scientific rigor" -- is described by them at too much length, and with too little specificity, to reproduce here. It's worth a look, though, if you're a connoisseur of intellectual comedy, and have time on your hands.

You can see where this is all going, right?

What about the 2008 U.S. presidential election? In matters of war and peace, what do we want the bottom line of our next president to be? Should it be to avoid war, and the unintended escalation of war? Or do we want the next president’s bottom line in foreign affairs to be the avoidance of defeat (or retreat, or conciliation, or something less than unconditional victory)? How do the two presidential candidates fit into this historical context? Can the JFK-LBJ-Vietnam quasi-“experiment” help us decide whom we want to elect as president this year?

... Does anyone believe that Al Gore, if he had assumed office on Jan. 20, 2001, would have invaded and occupied Iraq? Is it conceivable that anyone other than George W. Bush would have done so?

Does anyone believe you add up a lot of contrary-to-fact conditionals and arrive at a certainty? 0 + 0 + 0 + ... + 0 = 1!

The question is rhetorical. Of course there are people who believe this. They are called liberals. It's like the old Borscht Belt joke -- we lose a little on each sale, but we make up for it in volume.

The locus classicus for this kind of reasoning is Mr Shandy pere's theory of the auxiliary verbs, which will be found in full below the jump:

I am convinced, Yorick, continued my father, half reading and half discoursing, that there is a North west passage to the intellectual world ; and that the soul of man has shorter ways of going to work, in furnishing itself with knowledge and instruction, than we generally take with it....

---- The whole entirely depends, added my father, in a low voice, upon the auxiliary verbs, Mr. Yorick.

Had Yorick trod upon Virgil's snake, he could not have looked more surprised. -- I am surprised too, cried my father, observing it, -- and I reckon it as one of the greatest calamities which ever befell the republick of letters, That those who have been entrusted with the education of our children... have made so little use of the auxiliary verbs in doing it, as they have done....

Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at once to set the soul a-going by herself upon the materials as they are brought her ; and by the versability of this great engine, round which they are twisted, to open new tracks of enquiry, and make every idea engender millions.

You excite my curiosity greatly, said Yorick....

---- The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am ; was ; have ; had ; do ; did ; make ; made ; suffer ; shall ; should ; will ; would ; can ; could ; owe ; ought ; used ; or is wont. -- And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see, -- or with these questions added to them, -- Is it ? Was it ? Will it be ? Would it be ? May it be ? Might it be ? And these again put negatively, Is it not ? Was it not ? Ought it not ? -- Or affirmatively, -- It is ; It was ; It ought to be. Or chronologically, -- Has it been always ? Lately ? How long ago ? -- Or hypothetically, -- If it was ; If it was not ? What would follow ? ---- If the French should beat the English ? If the Sun go out of the Zodiac ?

Now, by the right use and application of these, continued my father, in which a child's memory should be exercised, there is no one idea can enter his brain how barren soever, but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn forth from it. ---- Didst thou ever see a white bear ? cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair : -- No, an' please your honour, replied the corporal. ---- But thou could'st discourse about one, Trim, said my father, in case of need ? ---- How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle Toby, if the corporal never saw one ? ---- 'Tis the fact I want ; replied my father, -- and the possibility of it, is as follows.

A WHITE BEAR ! Very well. Have I ever seen one ? Might I ever have seen one ? Am I ever to see one ? Ought I ever to have seen one ? Or can I ever see one ?

Would I had seen a white bear ? (for how can I imagine it ?)

If I should see a white bear, what should I say ? If I should never see a white bear, what then ?

If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive ; have I ever seen the skin of one ? Did I ever see one painted ? -- described ? Have I never dreamed of one ?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear ?

What would they give ? How would they behave ? How would the white bear have behaved ? Is he wild ? Tame ? Terrible ? Rough ? Smooth ?

-- Is the white bear worth seeing ? --

-- Is there no sin in it ?

-- Is it better than a black one?

Comments (10)


One interesting aspect of the JFK vs. LBJ speculation is that they were both saddled (or yoked?)with that war monger par excellence, RFK. Kinda makes for a foregone conclusion as far as Vietnam was concerned.

Peter Ward:

The authors are correct to say, "The historical precedent for [Obama], we argue, was President John F. Kennedy, especially in his approach to the crisis he faced over what to do about the disintegrating situation in Vietnam. Understanding how JFK dealt with Vietnam helps us understand what we call virtual JFK: what JFK probably would have done in Vietnam if he had not been assassinated." I.e., he would have done more or less what his successors did do--we may reasonably expect the same from BHO.

Incidentally, one regard, probably the only one, in which the BHO campaign have been more or less is explicit is in speaking of forgiven policy (the same was true of Gore in 2000, but most liberals seem to have forgotten). While they are more modest in their aspirations than McCain they are likewise openly imperialistic. In particular re: Iran and Pakistan. The only advantage of the Democrats in this case is they are saner in rhetoric, but they agree with the Republicans, in principle, that the US should rule the earth.

It's quite true. Without our glorious Electoral College system, President Gore would have invaded Afghanistan, then Pakistan, then Iran, as President-to-Be Obama is planning to do.

Wouldn't those maintained Iraqi sanctions have looked beautiful under the glow of mushroom clouds?

I love the term "phantasmadicting". Thanks for that one.


i'm reminded of the great neo classical econ con dodge

"well its all in the array of propensities "

as smarming as knats in june

that way confoundedness runs... eh ???

is it to be
heaven or hell
balanced on a set of marginals
a stack of


"that war monger par excellence, RFK"

CIRCA ..WHAT 65 ??66 ???






the phrase good enough for gubmint work comes innto play in
when we arrive at subjunctive junction

ponder the scale clio uses ?/

so jfk diffident statesman might have not gone the whole texas hog

and we had no massive blood spill over there

do you think much else further on would look so different

a new age of battle go lightly would have dawned ??

ponder the post nam syndrome gegot the anti post nam syndrome

all becomes in the badness of good time its apposite opposite ...eh ???

Hasn't Obama been running around repeating RFK "responsible end" oxymoron/non-promise/lie?


thanks for the Tristram Shandy reference. I've been ruining my eyes and brain reading Proust in french, and need a change of pace. Of course, once the election is over, I can come out of hiding (from the news) and resume work on my combination wine-cellar/fall-out shelter.

Michael Hureaux:

Pomo weirdo gumbo. I must join in the mix.

So, I posit: if Kennedy had lived, his support for space travel would have gotten him bombarded with gamma rays that would have turned him into the Hulk and he would have gone around screaming things like "JFK smash! JFK is the strongest one there is! JFK will smash stupid red flag people!" Or something to that effect. This would have made him a cinch for re- election in 1964.

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