Since Kennedy's death, the nation has not seen, in any of his successors, [as of the 2007 publication -- ed.] his cosmopolitan intellectualism or the oratorical eloquence with which he sought to lead the nation by the power of his words. What is also beyond dispute is the way Kennedy, the first president born in the twentieth century, inspired the young of his generation by his youthful vigor and the bold, fresh initiatives of his New Frontier, such as his Peace Corps, civil rights, and pledge to put a man on the moon. Idealism was in the air, and the nation's capital had never seen such an invasion of young people who wanted to change the world for the better.Perhaps Mr Bugliosi believes such things. Perhaps including them in his introduction is necessary, the better to express empathy with readers who have trouble squaring, as many people still do, the import of the deed with the tawdriness of the criminal. The editors of National Review offer a dissenting interpretation of those same impressions.
Kennedy did not transform the country, but he did transform the presidency – largely for the worse. Combining grandiose rhetoric with shallow policy, he established the modern template of president as media hero, beginning the conversion of the office of the presidency from that of chief administrator of the federal government to the modern grotesquery it has become. The main effects of his time in the White House were to make his immediate predecessor look like Cincinnatus by comparison and to unleash the ugliness of Johnson and Johnsonism on the republic after his martyrdom at the hands of a deranged Communist.Unfortunately, Lee Oswald's fifteen minutes of fame coincided with an era in which unresolved social tensions became incompatible with their postwar integument. As Strauss and Howe observe in The Fourth Turning (p. 170:)
The postwar High was spent; it could not last. A new mood was necessary -- and coming. The spark came on November 22, 1963. From the standpoint of history, the events of that day were critical, but not essential. Had Oswald missed, the specifics would have been different, but the saeculum would still have carved its path.Many commenters hint at this argument, although they fall short of noting that correlation is not causation. Let's start with Peggy Noonan.
We talk about JFK’s death because for the 18 years leading up to that point—between the end of the war, as we used to say, and 1963—America knew placidity. Many problems were growing and quietly brewing, but on the surface America was placid, growing more affluent, and politically calm. And then this rupture, this shock, this violence, this new sense that anything can happen, history can be ripped from its rails, that security once won cannot necessarily be maintained. That our luck won’t necessarily hold.The rupture would have come anyway, if Strauss and Howe's hypothesis is valid, although it's possible that Johnson and Johnsonism -- this being the era in which the major networks began reporting from Washington rather than listing all the reporters in Washington sending material back to New York -- was the wrong policy response to those brewing problems.
And what followed—growing political unrest, cultural spasms, riots at political conventions, more assassinations and assassination attempts—was so different from the years preceding that we couldn’t help look back at JFK’s murder as the breakpoint, the rupture. After that, things turned difficult.President Kennedy's murder came less than a month after demolition of New York's Pennsylvania Station began, which might have been the first symptom of the end of The America That Worked(TM).
Camelot isn’t JFK. Camelot is the way we remember America before JFK died. Camelot is the America that existed, for one brief shining moment, before Lee Harvey Oswald began to shoot. a placid-seeming, even predictable place that we have not seen since.Robert Samuelson notes "He was not a great president. He was somewhere between middling and mediocre." His elaboration, however, also focuses on the transition from The America That Worked(TM) to the Consciousness Revolution and the subsequent coarsening of the common culture that goes on to this day.
Kennedy’s assassination shattered the illusion of control. Who could imagine an American president being shot? But many unimagined events followed: race riots in Los Angeles, Detroit and other cities; a powerful antiwar movement; the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King; a president’s resignation (Watergate).And, I argue, leads directly to the disaster that the Obama Presidency has become. Perhaps, with fifty years since the event, it is time for the country to move on. Reason's Nick Gillespie, who introduces a libertarian dissent to the Celebrity Presidency,
Camelot was that brief interlude when we thought we could impose our will. That is its magnetism. It was less an innocent time than a simplistic one. We thought we could engineer the future and discovered that the future wouldn’t cooperate. Our continuing seduction by the Kennedy narrative presumes that had he lived, the future would have been better. He would have grasped the folly of Vietnam, embraced the new youth culture and advanced civil rights. This subtext sustains the Kennedy fascination.
And if we as a nation refused to grok fully the dark side of power prior to JFK’s assassination, everybody got it by the time the Warren Commission report and the Pentagon Papers came out, Dion scored his last huge hit with “Abraham, Martin and John,” Teddy Kennedy strategically donned a neck brace, and Dick Nixon flew off to San Clemente.then suggests that the torch be passed to a new generation.
Indeed, by the early 1970s, what American over or under 30 didn’t agree with the sentiments expressed in a 1971 New York Times Magazine story on youth politics co-authored by Louis Rossetto, the future cofounder of Wired magazine? “John F. Kennedy, one of the leading reactionaries of the sixties, is remembered for his famous line, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,’” seethed Rossetto and Stan Lehr. “Today, more and more young people are instead following the advice of [author] David Friedman: ‘Ask not what government can do for you… ask rather what government is doing to you.’”
But after 50 years, here’s hoping that particular fever is breaking. Not because Kennedy’s assassination wasn’t a horrible event or because questions around it and the world in which it took place still linger, but because no generation should monopolize the past, present, and future to the extent the boomers have tried. At the very least, we owe our literal and figurative children the breathing space to get on with their lives as free of their parents' shadow as possible.Perhaps some additional parallels between President Kennedy and President Obama will help the next generation move on. Let's start with Mr Kennedy's application to Harvard. (Yes, read the whole thing, in those days, dropping names appeared to be the preferred mode of getting the thick envelope.) Particularly telling is a passage in a letter that appears to be his father calling in a favor.
Jack has a very brilliant mind for the things in which he is interested, but is careless and lacks application in those in which he is not interested. This is, of course, a bad fault.I'm guilty of that differential ability to focus or to become bored, and I can relate fully to a father not wanting that held against his son. But that observation might apply to Our President, who seems more at ease campaigning than in negotiating. Might it not be the case, though, that such a focus, commendable if not desirable in a professor, a Grandmaster, coach, or division superintendent, is not compatible with the contemporary Presidency, particularly in the Manage Everything "modern grotesquery" that seems to be today's job description, and even more so in the Herbert Croly - Franklin Roosevelt - Arthur Schlesinger paradigm for a Democrat?
Our President, however, is a predictable outcome of celebrity trumping competence. Stir in a sycophantic media, identity politics, incompetent Republican campaigns, the hubris of The Best and The Brightest, and the good-will of voters hoping to validate the Civil Rights Movement, add a dash of nostalgia for Camelot, and all follows.
Never mind that John Kennedy gets an incomplete, and Our President is a failure: a stimulus that didn't stimulate, a diplomatic "reset" that has antagonized everybody and strengthened Vladimir Putin's hand, and a health care restructuring that looks ever more like a monopsony. Perhaps the most fitting outcome, fifty years after Lee Oswald murdered President Kennedy and Patrolman Tippit, might be the end of the cult of the Presidency and Washington Knows Best.
If it's not the saeculum, perhaps the expected behavior of complex adaptive systems will make it so.
Obama voter and thoughtful public intellectual Walter Russell Mead suggests as much.
Liberal Democrats once hoped that President Obama would be the “Democratic Reagan.” What worries them now is that this may indeed be the case. President Obama may be the Democrat who ends up convincing millions of American millennials that Ronald Reagan was right, and that the progressive administrative state is neither honest nor competent enough to solve the problems of the American people.The harder intellectual work to be done might be in establishing that emergent order and distributed networks are far more effective at overcoming difficulties than a small committee of The Best and The Brightest can ever be, even if that committee sits around a Round Table in Camelot.