November 18, 2013

November 22, 1963

"Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?" How many of us have asked and answered that question over the years? I know I still remember. I was walking across the Main Campus at Georgetown University, where I was a freshman at the School of Foreign Service, part of a new generation inspired by the New Frontier. We were going to change the world. Instead, the world changed us.

History had been made just a few months before I arrived in D.C., when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The deliberate but implacable cadence of Dr. King's speech matched the slow but steady progress towards racial equality that would be made over the next decade.

In contrast, the assassination of President Kennedy jolted history with an immediacy we all felt and understood. The black and white images of the funeral procession marked the beginning of the fade to black of the American Century. The bizarre shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald in a Texas jail -- I heard it over a transistor radio while I was standing in a crowd watching the arrival of Kennedy's coffin at the Capitol, Jackie and the two kids tiny figures on the Capitol steps -- left us wondering what could possibly happen next.

It got worse. Five years later, Dr King was killed in Memphis, the victim of one last attempt to stop the civil rights movement, and Robert F. Kennedy lay dying in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the first American casualty of the Arab-Israeli conflict that would ultimately lead to 9/11.

Our generation is sometimes seen as soft and self-indulgent, but we must have been tougher than we looked. Few decades in American history have been as tumultuous as the one after Kennedy was assassinated. Three assassinations in five years. A war that divided a nation along lines as bitter as those of the Civil War. The resignation of a president. We lived through all that, and we did it without losing faith in ourselves or in our country. We went to work every day, raised our families, and, despite the occasional youthful indiscretion, we mostly ended up living pretty normal lives.

Today, the fashion in political dissent is largely negative: delay, deny, and denigrate. That wasn't our style. We wanted to take the world we inherited and make it a better place for everyone, not tear it down. We children of the 60s were portrayed as radicals, but we got things done the old-fashioned way. We pushed conservation, clean air, and equal rights to the top of the political agenda, turning slogans into the law of the land, all by working inside the system. How old-fashioned is that?

I look at what today's eighteen-year-old kids are seeing as their example to follow: a dysfunctional political system unable to deal with any issues in an honest or effective manner. Makes you wonder what they will carry forward to the next generation. We at least had Kennedy as a model of what was possible.

We will never know what a second term would have felt like under Kennedy. Most likely, he would have found his reputation slowly tarnished and dinged from the wear and tear of mistakes and personal failings. An untimely death has spared his legacy, although there is no denying that Camelot wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Still, the myth of Camelot has lasted longer than most, perhaps because nothing better has come along to replace it. What worse, no one is even trying.

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