I read a quote recently: “All happiness is in the past.” The writer meant that happiness is always a memory, because the present moment becomes the past in an instant. The further something is in the rear view mirror, the more we tend to glorify it. The image is far away, a bit blurry, harder to see, and our mind fills in the rest.
It is so with John F. Kennedy. He was assassinated fifty years ago today, that young, handsome family man, scion of a political dynasty, husband of the glamorous Jacqueline, father to two adorable children. In our minds, we see his mane of chestnut hair rippling in the wind on his sailboat, his children tumbling around his feet in the oval office, him in tie-and-tails with his wife at a glittering social event. Camelot. All that was ended by a bullet in Dallas.
We don’t like to think about how JFK was virtually installed in office by the political shenanigans of an over-reaching bootlegger of a father, or about his womanizing, or his drug addiction, or the Bay of Pigs. We also don’t like to think that he didn’t exactly embrace the civil rights struggle from the get-go. It benefits us not. We need our icons, we need the glamour, we need to believe in goodness.
And we shall. When JFK was murdered, I was in kindergarten, finger-painting, eating graham crackers. All I knew at the time was that grown-ups were crying and the normal television shows were replaced by very scary images. What I didn’t know was that that moment in Dallas changed everything. It was no longer safe for the President of the United States to be near the people. The people were not to be trusted. Just being the President could get you killed.
When Barack Obama was elected, it happened again: a young, handsome man with a beautiful, accomplished wife and two great kids got elected President. I, being a good liberal, was thrilled. A surge of idealism rushed through me. Maybe now we can stop making bad wars and pissing off the rest of the world and get down to the business of education, social justice, equality. My next thought was: they’ll kill him. Our country had just chosen a black man with a Muslim-sounding name, after 9/11 no less, to our highest office. The internet was crawling with racist screed and a promise that he wouldn’t live three months.
So far as we know, Obama isn’t a womanizer and doesn’t have a drug problem. He didn’t come from a fabulously wealthy political dynasty. But a lot of people hate him anyway. He’s tried to pull American troops from harm’s way and to give the people of this country access to health insurance. Not completely on board with gay marriage at first, the moral force of younger people, including his own children, propelled him to support it. The times they are a-changin’ and he, like JFK with the civil rights movement, has moved us forward. In some ways, it seems like JFK took the bullet meant for all who serve. Because of what happened to JFK, every American president lives behind a shield of Secret Service protection for the rest of his life.
The destruction of Camelot taught us that we need our Camelots, we need our heroes no matter how flawed. We need the beautiful risk-takers to do the things that the rest of us only talk about. We need to remember.
“We would like to live as we once lived, but history will not permit it.” -John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Ft. Worth, 1963
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