Saturday, November 22, 2003

A Death in the Family

"I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan.  How the mighty are fallen in the midst of battle…" — David's lament for his fallen best friend.  These were the words I chose to read from the pulpit to the nearly two thousand people who spontaneously attended our Friday night service on November 22, 1963.  And it wasn't easy to read them.  It's painful to this day and I am not alone.  Not alone, but it remains a singular experience for most of us, our personal loss even more than our collective loss. 

John Kennedy's presidency was exceedingly brief.  Arthur Schlesinger recounted it as days, not years.  Jackie wanted us to remember it as a shining moment.  And, I believe, it is precisely because it was a flash in time, that has his legacy became so powerful.  Since he didn't have the opportunity to play it out, inevitably (as we all do on some level) to screw it up, we're free to fill in gaps, to dream the dreams.  The most powerful myths are those over which we have ultimate control.  Heroes are always bigger than life because we need them to be just that.  And heaven knows, there aren't too many heroes around these days, making JFK all the more precious.

Given the weight of the myth factor, pundits and talking heads rush in to point out the substance behind the myth, to fill in the gap.  They remind us of missiles, of the cheering crowds in Berlin and of a the introduced, though not passed, landmark Civil Rights legislation.  All important, all fair but all totally besides the point.  There is nothing wrong with myth which has always been far more powerful and enduring for humans than fact.  The myth of JFK's short Presidency was its ultimate accomplishment. 

Style over substance, was exactly what we needed so desperately after the deadly dull Eisenhower years.  When Jack Kennedy came to the fore, in emotional terms America had yet to fully recover from World War II.  The FDR antidote personalities were in place -- first Truman and then Ike, both extremely decent men but totally lacking the charismatic electricity of their predecessor.  And let's not forget Joe McCarthy who left us dispirited and wondering if democracy had actually prevailed in the first half of the Century.  Enter Jack Kennedy.  He gave us the lift we needed and, while countless Americans did not realize the magnitude of the gift until he was gone, he made us feel good about our country, proud of it.  It wasn't a matter of wearing metal flags on our lapels.  It was real.

Which brings me to 2003, the fortieth anniversary.  Where is JFK now when we need him again?  There's been this death in the family and we still can't seem to get over it. 

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