After November, 1963
America was never the same after Kennedy’s assassination: many historians think it was the exact moment when America lost the “innocence” it had held up to that point in the post-war 20th century. As a CBS story on the subject puts it, “that weekend began one of the most violent decades in our country’s history–more assassinations, Vietnam, the beginning of Watergate—a time Americans came to question almost everything we had once taken for granted. ”
Camelot had fallen.
Conspiracy theorists argued about the Warren Report, college students protested Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, and the American federal government became divorced from “America” at large. More than anything, we went from having one enemy–Communism–to many, depending on your views at the time: the hippies, the conservatives, Lyndon Johnson, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, Castro, LSD, White People, Black People, the Students for a Democratic Society, whatever it was they were pissed off about, and above all, government itself. It’s still a polarizing time, looking back. To paraphrase one of my professors, the late 60s were made up of people who hated the way things were, and people who hated the people who hated the way things were. The draft tore up families and lives, the Beatles went to India; America had its identity crisis.
And we lost our faith in the very government we had entrusted to John F. Kennedy. In him, we had seen the light of a nation. It followed, necessarily, that the decades after his death would be fundamentally different. We entered a post-Kennedy era. From Nixon’s corruption to Carter’s naiveté to Clinton’s debauchery to Obama’s “unAmericanness, ” the cultural narratives of this era have been ones of mistrust, fracture: we hesitate to trust our government to anyone anymore, lest they be representatives of those slimy interests brought to the surface in the years after 1963.
Just how well received would the Kennedy clan be today? We don’t see political dynasties of the same sort anymore, at least, not of the same public presence. In fact, besides the Bush clan, the modern-day Kennedys (Congressman Joe, Ambassador Caroline), are perhaps the most comparable family to their golden-age progenitors; they’re active in government and non-profits, academia and business, and they have the subtle, yet constant attention of a nation.
No other family has risen to the level of national prominence that the 20th-century Kennedys achieved; it might be the case that the same mistrust in government which followed the Kennedy assassination extended a mistrust towards all established institutions—church, state, economic, philosophical, or otherwise. And that the death of the president who so engendered our belief that government could do good in the world created such an atmosphere of cynicism and negativity that such a president could never again be elected.
After all, look at how our modern politics treats candidates who are independently wealthy or powerful: as somehow “in cahoots” with powerful economic or political forces that, whether deliberate or not, prey on the American public. Mitt Romney wasn’t a businessman, but a “vulture capitalist. ” It is not only the ideas of the Tea Party we are uncomfortable with, but their model: corporate funding and endorsements by syndicated national media. Weren’t these the exact molds of the Kennedy family, the one that captured the hearts of a ‘post-idealist’ nation? Joseph P. made his money in industry just like George Romney, Mitt’s father. Both fathers were involved in politics, and raised their children with the expectation that they, too, would give back to the country that had given them so much. Both Kennedy and Romney played down their ancestral success, focusing on their own large families— oodles of kids, plenty of family photos—to highlight just how urgently they could identify with mainstream America.
When Jack Kennedy visited a coal mine in West Virginia—perhaps the most vulnerable area of the country for his campaign, as it was heavily Protestant and very poor—he confessed to a coal miner who was standing in line to shake hands that he hadn’t worked a day of physical labor in his life. The miner smiled and admitted back, “believe me, you haven’t missed a thing. ” In what universe could that have happened to Romney?
Speaking Truth With Power
Kennedy’s death established an era of distrust that made this sort of interaction with most politicians of his background impossible, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe mistrusting institutions of wealth and power is healthy for a democracy. Perhaps, though, it gives rise to the exploitative kind of populism that feeds on appealing answers to tough questions, as long as they translate to votes. The kind that gives rise to Ron Paul’s gold standard, or Glenn Beck’s Hollywood-bashing, or even Elizabeth Warren’s frenzied charge on capitalism.
Here lies the contradiction with John Kennedy: he rose to power holding the hands of powerful institutions. Union bosses coordinated his campaigns, Frank Sinatra (mob connections and all) sang at his rallies. His father bankrolled the 1960 campaign’s infrastructure, and Jack’s cabinet counted among its members, in addition to his own little brother, faculty from the most elite, insulated institutions in the world, Ivy League schools. His career, in every aspect except on TV and in the newspaper, was an extreme of elitism. If he were a candidate now, he would fail miserably that test that has done in so many candidates of wealth, power, and influence since his death: the pollster’s question to Joe Six-pack, “who better understands your life? Your problems?”
The most important difference between Kennedy’s time and now is not how people would have answered this question, but that it is a question we ask ourselves at all. Does it matter, after all, whether or not a president understands the struggles of everyday people? FDR grew up in absolute riches; Woodrow Wilson couldn’t read until he was 10. Lincoln worked all his life; Reagan knew the small town of Dixon, Illinois. There seems to be no meaningful correlation.
And yet, our suspicion of the elites—those huddled in smoky rooms, plotting against us—has only become stronger. We may never return to a political era like the one that chose Jack Kennedy as its leader: there are too many viral videographers hoping for the next “47%” comment, or some other tip-off that a politician isn’t really working for us, The People. We’re left with a timely joke to ponder the differences between then and now, made by Kennedy at a campaign dinner in 1958, “I have just received the following telegram from my generous Daddy. It says, ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide. ’”
Image credit: All That is Interesting, JFK Presidential Library
This article originally appeared on https://harvardpolitics.com/keeping-kennedyselitist-history/