Sunday, January 16, 2011

Remembering Camelot

This January 20th is the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States. I have, not surprisingly, already heard several reflections on this event. For one thing, Kennedy's Inaugural Address was a high-water mark for inaugural speeches; and certainly no president since has managed to leave such a mark on a nation, or a generation, as Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you. . ." challenge. For another, his youth and good looks captivated most of the nation. While Kennedy and the outgoing president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, were veterans of the same war, Eisenhower the former general was representative of the generation that had directed that war, while Kennedy, the former lieutenant and PT boat commander, represented the very young generation that had done much of the fighting and dying on the battlefield.

But the biggest reason for the bittersweet tinge to this anniversary is the brevity of Kennedy's presidency, ending in his assassination less than three years after he took office. I am among those who were just old enough in 1963 to remember where they were when hearing the news that the President had been shot. Little did any of us know that this was just the first assassination in what would be a decade of assassinations, violence, upheaval, and cultural change that would leave us a different people by its end.

John Kennedy and his wife and children were young, and beautiful, and graceful, and talented. I remember being taken with the fact that Caroline was almost the same age as me, and had a younger brother just like I did. A lot of the political arguments were over my head, and I was only vaguely aware of even some of the major events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was caught up, as many were, in the legend of Camelot, and of the role John Kennedy played in an all-too-brief "golden age" where the best and the brightest came to Washington in response to asking what they could do for their country.

The full story is more complicated, of course, as most stories usually are. John Kennedy was a deeply complicated man, and not all that he seemed to be. There were the major health issues, which were many and much more serious than anyone in the public was allowed to know. There were the sexual matters, the "girlfriends" and liaisons that also involved potential national security conflicts of interest. There were the national issues that were seething and just about to break out in full force: the civil rights struggle, the deep poverty and hunger that existed in too many places in this nation, and a generational alienation that would come to a head over the matter of the draft and fighting a war in a far-off small nation in southeast Asia. There were also the international matters: not just Vietnam, but the building of the Berlin Wall, a hardening of the division of the world into supporters of Us and supporters of Them, and an American innocence regarding what policies we were really pursuing in much of the globe, and to what end.

We were all younger then. By the end of the sixties decade we would have seen other national leaders gunned down, our cities erupt in riots and go up in flames, and along with great strides for voting rights and equality an increasing fear that we were a nation hopelessly divided and prone to more and more violence. It is hard to imagine ever again being so hopeful, ever again so confident that we could make our hopes and dreams become a reality, no matter what the odds. On this fiftieth anniversary of that "forever young" President's swearing in, I wonder what kind of a torch is being passed to the generation of my children. I worry that what we are giving to them is a very different, and much darker, challenge than what was given to us.

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