Monday, May 29, 2017

JFK at 100

Today, May 29, 2017, would have been President John F. Kennedy's 100th birthday. Dying relatively young (at 46), our 35th president remains forever that way in my generation's memory, along with his young wife and children. (The photo portrays the President and his family outside church on Easter Sunday 1963, Jackie was then pregnant with their final child Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who was born and died that August, just months before JFK's own death in November.)

I was just 12 when JFK was elected president and 15 when he died, but my recollections of both events are crystal clear. In our blue-collar, working class, Bronx Catholic "ghetto," the most momentous thing about Kennedy's election was that it "dropped a hydrogen bomb" (as one newspaper editorial expressed it at the time) on the tradition that a Catholic could not be elected president. Kennedy did little to call attention his minority religion as president, but it was always in the background, being most dramatically on display finally at this funeral. For both better and worse, the Kennedy years finalized European immigrant Catholicism's assimilation into mainstream American society and culture. Secure in our present position in American society, we Catholics might do well to remind ourselves of the intense, anti-Catholic polemics that were a normal part of American political discourse not that long ago. Many of the things some say about Muslim immigrants now used to be said as routinely then about Catholic immigrants a century ago, .

The religious issue aside, the Kennedy Administration, already known for its youth and glamor, was retroactively reimagined afterwards as "Camelot" after his death. What it was in fact was the well deserved coming to power not of the Knights of the Roundtable but of the "Greatest Generation" - famously described by Kennedy in his Inaugural Address as "born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace." (It was Nixon's generation as well and so would have come into its own either way. In 1960, both candidates were close in age. Both were well qualified war veterans who shared more or less the same political views. The main difference was that Nixon came from a poor background and got where he got mainly by hard work and diligence. Kennedy came from wealth and privilege and got where he got mainly by means of his wealth, privilege, good looks, and personal charm. Given a choice, the American people voted, unsurprisingly, to reward wealth, privilege, good looks, and personal charm.) 

Historically, the Kennedy years were the fulfillment of the post-war era's promise of the most widely shared prosperity in human history, reflected in a shared bi-partisan consensus. At the same time, however, the Kennedy years set the stage for the eventual fraying of that consensus in the aftermath of the civil rights movement at home and the Vietnam War abroad.

There is something strange about our contemporary obsession with youth and beauty - so contrary to the more traditional, commonsense view that authentic wisdom is more likely found among the elders. But what happens to that traditional commonsense when the pace of change renders the elders' wisdom problematic and when society's elders' failures far outshine their accomplishments, both of which have characterized the half century plus since Kennedy's death? Add to that the fact that the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy years marked the coming of age of my own Baby Boom generation, the largest generation in history, a generation formed by the "Greatest Generation," but so completely unlike it in our narcissistic self-preoccupation.

Socrates the ancient Athenian philosopher was an old man and reputedly ugly. The contrast between his external appearance and his virtue and wisdom highlighted for his disciple Plato the great gulf between appearance and reality. In Kennedy (and subsequent Kennedy-like figures) we have repeatedly chosen to put our faith in appearance. Perhaps some of the failures of the Kennedy presidency (and more recently of its pale imitation in the Obama presidency) reflect that problematic preference.

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