I came of age politically on a beautiful Fall day more than twenty years ago.
I was walking out of the Phoenix office, arm in arm with Eileen Ross. The Phoenix was the student newspaper at Queens College in New York City and the Phoenix office was my favorite place in the world to be, where I worked harder and with more passion than for any of my courses. That year, the beginning of my junior year, I was the Phoenix’s managing editor and Eileen Ross, a pretty freshman, was one of our new reporters.
It was mid-day, a Friday, and Eileen and I were both heading for class — in the same direction, as luck would have it — so she wrapped her arm around mine and, laughing at some joke, we stepped into the hall.
I stopped laughing when I saw Steve — Steve, whose last name I should remember, which ought to be carved like a lover’s initials on my heart, but which I’ve forgotten — his unspoiled face creased with shock and alarm, his eyes having seen something they weren’t meant to, trying to draw back into shadows, into safe forgetfulness, Steve running not walking, gasping not talking, his big body moving at a half-tilt, rushing toward us like the day, the hour, shouting, “The President’s been shot.”
“Steve,” I said, “is this a joke?”
“No,” he answered, still moving. “Turn on the radio.”
Within moments, the public address system came on, tuned to a local station. Students and teachers streamed into the union from all over campus to listen to the news. It wasn’t clear, at first, whether Kennedy was still alive. There were rumors, the announcer said, that he was dead. No one wanted to believe them. Some people were crying. I remember holding back my tears — at eighteen, I thought it wasn’t manly to cry. Meanwhile, whoever was running the public address system, through inexperience or trembling fingers, was having trouble modulating the volume; when the news finally came that Kennedy had died, the announcer’s cracked voice was grotesquely loud, blasting through the building, each syllable ringing like a shot. As people all around me wept, the voice boomed on, filling in “the facts,” filling time — dead air time a greater tragedy, somehow, than a dead President.
The rest, as they say, is history — only the history, the official history of that event, is largely myth. The sole assassin theory is about as convincing as a television commercial. Yet the conspiracy theories — though they are probably more accurate — miss the point as well. It’s taken me a long time to figure out just why I felt so betrayed that day. And with each new Presidential election, I’m reminded how great a tragedy John Kennedy’s assassination was.
What can Kennedy’s assassination possibly have to do with the 1984 election? The choice, after all, is between Mondale and Reagan. Why dwell on a ghost? Particularly, as every shrewd observer reminds us, a media hero who was every inch a politician, opportunistic and sly, notwithstanding the dewy remembrances, the mist over the grave. It’s true: Kennedy knew how to lie; he knew how to cheat, not least of all, from most accounts, on his wife; he brought us dangerously close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis and his foreign adventurism paved the way for the full horror of Vietnam.
“So why,” asks my wife, reading the last paragraph — my wife who was eight when Kennedy was killed — “why do you like him so much?”
It’s a good question and it’s hard to answer, without seeming hopelessly idealistic and patriotic. But I am idealistic and patriotic. Democracy is idealistic, too; it depends on a belief in the individual, in the power of the individual. Not the power to subjugate others or to make war, but the power to think for oneself, to feel deeply, to create, to be wholly alive. This kind of power exists naturally in everyone and from its full expression, political power flows.
That, at least, is the ideal. Obviously, we don’t live up to it, and never have, but isn’t it our destiny, as Americans, to reconcile the ideal and “the real?” Isn’t that what the Founding Fathers had in mind — those sly revolutionaries, pioneers of a New World, who turned from Europe and its ancient, binding traditions to try something undreamt of: an experiment in self-government on a grand scale, an adventure in freedom and change, an intentional community with ideals as lofty as any “new age” credo, any love-struck Sixties commune, anything we can come up with today? Isn’t it possible — through the haze of error and bloodshed, the dark American night — to see the dawning of freedom, not as sentimentalized past or impossibly utopian future but as here, now? Of course it’s not perfect. We’re still pioneers, exploring the mountains and valleys — and the swamps — of the American soul, learning what freedom really is. Who said it would be easy?
Kennedy, it seems to me, understood this better than any other President in my lifetime, and better than those who contemptuously dismiss him, and America, and its promise. He was a student of history, and a writer; his book, Profiles In Courage, about U.S. senators who defied public opinion to follow their own conscience, won a Pulitzer Prize. He bridged the ideal and the real, sensed deeply what America was and what it could be.
He knew the national spirit had been shaped by the frontier. The frontier beheld by the early settlers was, after all, as immense as the ocean they had crossed to get here, a space bigger than Europe, bigger than all their dreams, a vastness appropriate to their vision. Yet two hundred years later, the frontier had been swallowed by progress, wrested “free” from its native inhabitants by genocidal wars and government lies. What frontier was left to us, what newness, what hope?
Kennedy invoked a New Frontier — not of landscape, some towering majesty “out there,” but of will, of inner space. “The New Frontier of which I speak,” he said, is “a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people but what I intend to ask of them.”
After the torpor of the Eisenhower years — those coming up in the Fifties were known as “the silent generation” — this challenge struck the right note, at least for the young and the willing (and the not-so-young, and those whose will was nearly gone, the old, and the poor; to this day Kennedy’s name is uttered reverently by those who knew practically nothing about him, but who know the human heart). Much of the idealism we associate with the Sixties was stirred up by Kennedy; he evoked a sense of the possible. If, as President, he sometimes lacked the strength of his own convictions, playing politics too discreetly, admiring courage in office rather than practicing it, he nonetheless set something important in motion. How often we don’t live up to our own greatest potential! But this doesn’t mean we’ve failed, or haven’t inspired others. It just means we’re human.
Kennedy was human, all right. He was an alive and vital man, in touch with his own power — physically, intellectually, emotionally. He was vigorous and athletic, despite a bad back injured playing football and again during World War II. (In 1943, the PT boat he was commanding was sunk by a Japanese destroyer; though he was thrown against a wall, aggravating his old injury, he saved one of his men by taking the sailor’s life preserver in his teeth and towing him for hours through the water. He got a lot of political mileage out of this later on; everyone loves a war hero, cynics said; well, why shouldn’t we admire bravery?)
Kennedy could laugh at himself. Once, during the beginning of his campaign for President, he told a group in Washington, “I have just received the following telegram from my generous daddy. It says, ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’” And if he chased women as much as the Kennedy legend suggests, we may at least be thankful we had a President to whom sex mattered, whom we could imagine making passionate love, who perhaps was really happier making love than war.
More importantly, Kennedy was growing with the Presidency. In the last year of his life, he had finally gotten behind a strong civil rights bill and it was clear that his commitment to blacks had deepened. He started the Peace Corps and, in general, acknowledged the responsibility of the United States to underdeveloped countries. Some of his aides suggested he was ready, too, just before his death, to pull out of Vietnam.
Who knows, or, after all this time, really cares? What matters aren’t the specifics of his programs, the ones that flowered brightly or that withered on the vine; it was the roots going deep into an American soil of optimism and energy that was thrilling. It wasn’t Kennedy’s political power but his personal power that was remarkable. His exuberance was infectious. America needed a reminder that one person could make a difference. True, he was the President, which gave him a certain advantage, but he used the Presidency to affirm the power of ordinary people — and for this, ordinary people are still thankful.
Yet to those who feared the power of the people, who believed that we’re powerless individually (and rightly so, because of the wickedness in our hearts!), who despised democracy while pretending to defend it, who could no more see America’s true face than their own face in the mirror, Kennedy was a threat. He had to be killed. What difference who paid whom, and for what “reason.” The bullet that split John Kennedy’s head apart was fired from deep inside America, from some dark place in its great, troubled body, a feverish body that wanted now to roll over and go back to sleep, that didn’t want to be stirred, that wanted familiar fantasies of strength, purchased from the arms manufacturers, or the auto makers.
In case anyone missed the message, it was underlined in years to come with the blood of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lennon. Yes, the message was clear: in America it had become dangerous to be fully alive. If you took America seriously, it was dangerous to be an American.
What effect has this had? A simple and chilling one: anyone considering a political career nowadays has to reckon with the possibility of being killed — not “senselessly” but as part of the democratic process; along with the salary and the travel it’s written into the job. Who knows how many good people this has kept out of politics, and how many politicians it’s kept tame?
Playing it safe is the national mood. There’s political survival and personal survival. Risks of all kinds. To talk about the truth is one thing; to tell the truth — to the voters, to a lover, or a friend — is something else. Who has that kind of courage? Not Reagan certainly. And if Mondale rises to it on occasion, he seems uncomfortable in the role. He’s a basically decent man who wants to get along. Can you imagine him at an encounter workshop, forced to be candid and bold? He’d excuse himself and find the bathroom and stay there until everyone was done.
Still, I’m going to vote for him. Call it a vote against Reagan. (If the Democrats take it as a “mandate” I really don’t care. I’m not interested in teaching the party a lesson; Jesse Jackson did that already. I just want Reagan out of the White House.) I disagree with my friends who say it doesn’t matter who wins. Why this sudden exercise in purity by people who every day make compromises, choose, in one way or another, “the lesser of two evils?” I certainly don’t expect miracles of Mondale; I think he’d be kinder to the poor, less likely to blow us up because of demons running around in his head. In other respects, I’m sure it will be politics as usual; to the Democrats and the Republicans our shared life is still defined by deals and Issues, not by amazement and imagination, by anything that touches us where we live.
The deadness in most politics — its dazzling irrelevance to our innermost selves — goes deeper than the personalities of the candidates. It’s got to do with basic beliefs about who we are and what the world is. Kennedy, because he believed in himself, understood intuitively that the world is a far more interesting and mysterious place than the newspapers make it out to be. But most politicians don’t seem to have figured that out. They see the exterior world as the real world, the fixed abode of seemingly separate people and places and events. What about the inner world? The raw creative power in each of us to give birth to worlds? You can’t see it; it must not be real.
It’s not only politicians who don’t acknowledge our true power; neither do teachers or tv anchormen or even most religious leaders. Who speaks to us? Who embraces the human family in its real not its pretend glory — the rivers of feeling that run through each of us, the shared thoughts, the inner landscapes, the nighttime journeys in dream, those bodies so wondrous and this wondrous planet, its will and our ancient will, to create, to learn, to live?
Real power comes from knowing who we are. Real government begins with self-government. Everything else is some kind of tyranny. If I abrogate to someone else responsibility for making my life whole, I’ve made a big mistake; I’ve voted for the wrong guy.
It’s taken me a long time to understand this. When Kennedy was shot, my innocence was pierced. The President — my President — wasn’t there anymore, to inspire and lead, to symbolize for me my own untapped potential. Who could I trust now to lead me? Who could I trust to bring his killers to justice? And what was justice anyway? Disillusionment had begun.
But another kind of coming-of-age was necessary: to realize that even if Kennedy had lived, and fulfilled every expectation, been the perfect President, it really wouldn’t have mattered. I’d still need to live my own life, govern myself, go down into the streets of myself and make some peace there. This is where politics gets really interesting, where I get a chance, each moment, to tell lies or speak the truth, lay down my arms or shore up the fortress heart, use my head wisely or blow my brains out, pledge allegiance to what endures.