There are moments of history that loom larger in our lives than any other single event, when communal and personal experiences flatten to the point where they become one in the same, connecting us all to mythic proportions. Unlike 9/11, the assassination of John F. Kennedy transcends most human divisions, as well as time and space. As I traveled back from Europe this week, I was struck by how much this commemoration has captured international as well as American media attention. The irony was that JFK was able to unite Americans and the world in his sudden and tragic death in a way he could have never done in life. The Kennedy gravesite is by far the most visited at Arlington National Cemetery, as if the funeral that began 50 years ago goes on, and more than just for the man buried there.
The end of a thousand days of "Camelot" is symbolic of the death of the idea of a nation people here and there believed in, or would have liked to. Kennedy, in memory, is a metaphor of what most people find good about America - youthful hope, optimism, moral leadership in exemplar, and the ambition to do great things. But one post-mortem myth begat the other: A fairy tale seemed to morph into a nightmare. In just two generations, a country renowned for optimism has sunk into impulsive indifference. Now Americans are more uncharacteristically fearful of their future - a land both less free and less brave.
Talk of American decline is increasingly in fashion. And for good reason: By many measures, the United States has fallen back into the pack in the race of nations - or, as Fareed Zakaria would rather argue, many have caught up to us. The United States appeared to have been at its apogee in 1963. I remember a friend of mine reminiscing already 25 years later that "when Jack Kennedy was shot, we were number one in just about everything. Now we're hardly number one in anything, except a lot of the wrong things."
Perhaps most worrying, the untimely violent death of one hero of hope after another since that day in Dallas - Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and others - has eroded the faith of particularly the young in the public sector as an agent of change for the better. The most recent government shutdown and the botched launch of Obamacare look like two more nails in the coffin of the great experiment in self-government and the civil institutions and civil dialogue that go with it. Our public discourse has not only become leaner in logic, but meaner in meaning. Our political dysfunction is also gutting our global credibility and leadership. At home as well as abroad, civil society is under more threat of demagoguery and extremism than since the 1930's.
We set ourselves up for this letdown.
Myths and dreams being the public and private versions of each other, the truth lies somewhere between how good we think things were then and how bad they seem to be now. Like any hero, JFK was a flawed character, and the speculation that abounds as to what might have happened had he lived longer serves only to add to his mystique and his myth.
John F. Kennedy was no doubt a man of great vision, but he was a realist as much as an idealist, as his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated. His ambitions were grounded in practical truth and a call to action, from his first day in office when he challenged Americans and the world to "ask not" what others could do for them but what they could do for and with others - much the polar opposite of the self-indulgence and narcissism that afflicts much our cultural consciousness today.
His last few months are especially rich in examples of a rare ability to bring together realism and idealism. Kennedy understood the relationship between hard and soft power - after all, he started both Special Forces and the Peace Corps. In his speech that summer in Berlin where he declared himself a citizen of the world, Kennedy had sensed what we should have sensed on 9/11 - that the security of people (and not just states) abroad was linked to our own, that over there matters over here.
A little more than a week later, in Philadelphia, Kennedy acknowledged something that we still struggle to do - grasp that our relationships with Europeans and others must be based on partnership rather than patronage, in order to form "a nucleus for the eventual union of all free men." That July 4th, Kennedy envisioned a more collaborative world enjoined by a "Declaration of Interdependence."
Later that summer, in announcing the start of a long series of nuclear disarmament initiatives, beginning with the 1963 Test Ban Treaty, the 35th president called not for an "absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream." Rather, he exhorted, "let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions... not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace." Instead, we went overwhelmingly for "national security."
In similar prescient fashion, in a remarkable speech at Amherst after the passing of Robert Frost and less than a month before his own demise, Kennedy explained like no one else before or since the role of art in maintaining the balance between moral strength and physical power as the basis of our place in the world, let alone our national security:
"Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much... When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment... The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state."
He further looked forward "to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose." Like any great leader, many of his ideas on peace and security and civil society had not yet found their time to come.
If JFK was so far ahead of this time, then his death was really not that untimely - for his life and legacy point toward opportunity more than tragedy, if we see it that way. The truth of the matter is that it wasn't a wacko with a mail-order gun who killed the John Kennedy we wish to immortalize. We've been killing his vision and his inspiration, through our apathy and cynicism. Government has failed us as of late because we have also failed it.
Kennedy's call to action, from his first to his last day as president, was a constant call to citizenship - local, national, and global. It was a call to embrace the promise of American reinvention and renewal. And by pointing out that the new frontiers we face are more moral than physical, more internal than external, he reminded us that the path to a more perfect union and a more peaceful world lies within ourselves - ultimately an even greater challenge than walking on the moon.
It's up to us today to decide whether more than Kennedy was killed that day, and what and how much of his myth is reality. That begins with each of us, before it can be for all of us.
As we pause to reflect on the bicentenary of a moment that brought us together negatively, we should consider that which can also bring us together positively as we examine our own personal profiles in courage.
We weren't ready for Kennedy's messages then. Are we ready for them now?
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