I wrote the following three years ago for the Patriot Ledger on the 50th observance of the death of President Kennedy. This morning, I am reminded of it, and reminded that America can be transcendent.
The Real Kennedy Legacy – America Can Be Transcendent
We know the story. As told in too simple a narrative, the young, wealthy, handsome war hero, cool and collected on national television, went on to beat the man who failed to adhere to the old adage, “Never let them see you sweat.”
During his Presidency, it never seemed that President Kennedy broke a sweat. Uncertainty about his foreign policy experience was lessened by his successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his trips abroad would excite millions. Domestically, he pushed an agenda that hinted at the Great Society that was to follow his death. He did it, his beautiful wife at his side, with style and grace. His presidency, however, would become outsized and outlived by the legacy of Camelot.
The Kennedy presidency, and how it has been portrayed in popular culture since his death, has left America yearning and aching for a political leader, and believing one to exist, who could singlehandedly, with style and grace, without breaking a sweat, solve all of America’s problems. Such a leader would balance the budget, end poverty, advance civil and equal rights, avoid wars, restore our nation’s standing in the world, in sum, be the real life symbol and actual securer of all that is right and just.
After President Kennedy’s death, America thought Robert Kennedy, who dreamt of things that never were and asked why not, would be that leader. And after his death, they turned to Ted Kennedy, the last of the brothers. He declined in 1968, and would not run until 1980.
That yearning and aching, that believing in the ability of one person to lead us to all that is right and just, was challenged, but not defeated, by the Nixon presidency. Watergate left America disgusted with the individual who occupied the Oval Office, determined to put checks on presidential power, and questioning whether our political system could ever deliver the promise of America.
And yet we continued to yearn. Perhaps Jimmy Carter, the down to earth peanut farmer from Georgia who talked of “an undiminished, ever-expanding American dream,” would fill the country’s need; but gas shortages and the Iranian hostage crisis dashed those dreams. Ronald Reagan saw “Morning Again in America” as a special time and place where all was right and just; but he was shot and never seemed the same. George H.W. Bush saw a “Thousand Points of Light” and looked to draw us to timeless ideals; but America read his lips, and he raised taxes anyway. We turned next to the man from Hope, Arkansas, Bill Clinton; but he faced impeachment. George W. Bush saw compassionate conservatism as the path to a new America; but the great recession took the country elsewhere. And with a message of hope and change, America trusted in Barack Obama; but he has felt the reality of congressional power.
Today, America finds little positive in the American political system. Both the President and Congress are held in low esteem.
Fifty years after the death of President Kennedy, at this moment of difficult political challenges, I believe we are not as good as the legend of Camelot, nor as bad as the legacy of Watergate. The very human leaders of the last fifty years have offered proof that there is no one person, no matter how much style and grace possessed, who can cure all our nation’s ills. President Kennedy could not do it, nobody since has been able, and nobody will be able.
Our leaders have taught us as well that there is no one person, no matter how great the personal failings, who can diminish the hope for the fulfillment of America’s promise. With its separation of powers, and checks and balances, our system of government contemplates that less than perfect leaders will become presidents.
Rather than aching and yearning for that larger than life personality that President Kennedy became in death, let us recognize that leaders are human. Let us remember and value President Kennedy for what he truly offered us – the belief that America, not an individual leader, can be transcendent.
If nothing else, we should know now that the future of this great nation lies not with the words and deeds of any one person, but within the hearts and souls, the hopes and dreams of all its people.