Fifty years ago, America was nearing the end of Year 1 of the Mythical Presidency. The mythical president, of course, was John F. Kennedy, and the Mythical Presidency was the aura that emanated from his White House, which was unlike any aura, or power, that had previously enveloped an American head of state. That power, that idea of a president as a vaguely supernatural force, persists today, but it is receding, turning in on itself. We do not know what comes next.
Kennedy did not emerge out of a void. He was anticipated by Woodrow Wilson, the first president to criticize (publicly) the Founding Fathers, and Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, the first presidents to attempt a reorganization of the national economy, and Harry Truman, who not only came into possession of the most powerful weapon any commander in chief had ever had but used it -- twice.
Nor was the transformation of the presidency effected solely by presidents. In the first half of the twentieth century, America, the actual and concrete expression of the American idea, grew mightier, bigger, taller, more expansive. Skyscrapers, assembly lines, interstate highways, the emergence of a standing Army and Navy that could wage war and impose peace anywhere, intelligence services, missiles, satellites, multinational corporations, renowned universities, internationally acclaimed artists and musicians -- all of these things pointed to a hitherto unimaginable greatness. The only thing missing was a hitherto unimaginable leader -- a mythical president -- to lead his country into a future that would be like no future ever before.
That was the role assigned to, and sought by, John F. Kennedy, and he played it masterfully.
It's unlikely that most Americans then understood exactly what was happening to the republic. The power of the Mythical Presidency, like that of most revolutions, is its power to conceal itself. Had the people appreciated the extent to which the Mythical Presidency would, over many election cycles, erode the political discourse and pare away their citizenship and turn them into believers and fools and, worse yet, ideologues and partisans, they might have voted, in 1960, for Richard Nixon -- craven, cunning, small-minded and not at all, in any way, mythical. That's because the essence of myth, as the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer observed in The Myth of the State, is feeling, which is raw and, at root, violent. The purveyor of myth, the modern-day office-seeker, does not deal in fact or argument. The currency of our politics is feeling, and not just feeling but a primal yearning that precedes language, mathematics, science -- modernity. In other words, the Mythical Presidency, by tapping into our most regressive inclinations, wears away at the democratic fabric. It makes us less capable of thought and therefore self-government.
This was not, of course, what Kennedy imagined when he became president, in January 1961. Kennedy was a war hero, and he had a delectable wit, an intelligence and a tragic sensibility that seemed to discern the many possibilities and limitations of the American superpower in the middle of the twentieth century.
But he was also a man, not a myth, which is to say that he was as much a reflection of his age as a creator of it. The Mythical Presidency had been building for several decades, and Kennedy, fueled by an enormous energy, a flotilla of Harvard Ph.D.'s and a great deal of his father's money, did what all successful presidential candidates do: He intuited the national zeitgeist, and he built his campaign around that. It was hard to define the "that." It was a feeling. The feeling at the Kennedy campaign was that the country, having become a far bigger and more powerful country than it had ever dreamed it would be, was ready to elect a president who would embody its sense of possibility. It was ready to transcend its fears and habits and install in the White House a man who was only 43, a Catholic, who had never run a company or an Army or had to work for a living, who was, with his looks and wealth and wife and little girl, a mythical force who would serve, as all myths do, as a conduit that would connect the people, with all their mundane concerns, with something great and permanent and divine. This was what the people wanted, and this was what John F. Kennedy, who was a supremely good politician, gave them.
Five decades have passed. Most of the nine presidents who have followed Kennedy have sought, with varying degrees of success, to infuse their own candidacies and administrations with a sense of the mythical. None has been as good at this as President Obama, who understood very early that his race, like Kennedy's religion, offered him a double-pronged opportunity to challenge and to inspire the nation. (Much of the Obama 2008 campaign resembles that of Kennedy, especially in the primary state of West Virginia, where the Massachusetts senator won a majority of the state's Democratic, and Protestant, voters by signaling, obliquely and with great skill, that a vote for his rival, Hubert Humphrey, was a vote against tolerance. Humphrey, like Hilary Clinton and John McCain, had never been accused of intolerance, but he was powerless to counteract the suggestion that voting for him was an act of religious bigotry.)
Now the plate tectonics are shifting. The nation is looking for a new kind of president. There is a sense that the old discourse is trite, mawkish, stupid, antiquated. This has happened for two reasons: Because all historical forces ebb and flow, and because this particular historical force, or persona, has been clobbered by a decade of war and economic collapse. The mythology of the Mythical Presidency has been punctured by a stark reality that cannot be camouflaged by media consultants or inspiring speeches, which no longer inspire but sound flat and incongruous: George W. Bush was not up to the job; nor is Barack Obama. This is not a matter of party or even values. This is a matter of how we conceive of our politics. We sense that the way we think about these things must change if we are to rescue ourselves from the predicament our politicians have created.
If President Obama loses next year, and recent polls suggest he may, that will be due, in part, to unemployment and the debt and the barrage of arrows that the GOP and its many subordinates will lob at the president. But the daily news events that fill up the airwaves and blogosphere and social-media networks are but superficialities that distract us from the underlying, historical movements with which all politicians, no matter how talented or well funded, must contend. President Obama is the most Kennedyesque president we've had since John F. Kennedy. Once upon a time, this was a great asset. That no longer looks to be the case.