November 18, 2013

GLICK: Remembering JFK: Heroism and History

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It is the week before Thanksgiving, and the mid-semester doldrums have transformed into a frantic realization that we all have so much living to do before retreating to that Netflix binge that others more idealistically call “Winter Break.” The week before Thanksgiving, nestled comfortably in the midst of our academic year, is not usually a time for reflecting, nor a moment in which we look beyond ourselves for answers to unanswerable questions. That’s the sort of mental procrastination reserved for Finals Week.

This week before Thanksgiving should be different.

This Friday, Nov. 22, at 12:30PM, I will probably be eating lunch. Some of you luckier, and lazier, readers may still be in bed. But at that moment, 12:30PM, we should pause. We should reflect. For a half-century ago, at 12:30PM on Nov. 22, 1963  (which, eerily enough, was also a Friday) an assassin’s bullet ended the life of President John F. Kennedy and forever changed the course of our nation, our planet and our lives.

I know that I often write columns ruminating over the nature of our interaction with history, or externalizing and contextualizing the college experience in such a way that (I hope) makes us savor every moment we have here at Cornell. This week, I did try to conjure up some non-abstract, topical thesis — I lingered for a moment on the particular allure of the Big Red Bar Mitzvah for those nice Jewish boys who were still awkward, rotund and overly hair-gelled at their own bar mitzvah parties — but, I kept returning to a commemoration of President Kennedy’s assassination. And then, as I contemplated my still-unwritten column, I realized perhaps it is not so abstract a thesis after all.

We are reaching adulthood in the Age of Disillusionment. Even those of us who have cheered our nation’s forward march over the past years squirm uncomfortably at the mention of drone strikes, NSA phone-tapping and It is hard, with a public sphere so inundated with the most despicable examples of leadership (Anthony Weiner, Rob Ford), to add a heroic sheen to any element of contemporary history. When a sitting president endorses gay marriage, we ask why he didn’t do so sooner. When that same president helps a political adversary salvage the storm-tossed wreckage of the Jersey shore, media outlets dwell, not on the uplifting power of our shared humanity, but on the political fallout of bipartisan collaboration. The Age of Disillusionment leaves little room for heroes.

With all this in mind, I will be the first to admit that JFK has remained, to me, somewhat removed from this depressingly pragmatic view of contemporary power. The saga of the Kennedy family enchants my English major fantasies, even while my Government major instincts reminds me that, while he lived, JFK was a flawed individual presiding over an imperfect administration. In death, however, he united not just his citizenry, but his entire century. My aunt, who was herself a college student in November 1963, often recalls the harrowing days before her own Thanksgiving Break. While her story should perhaps show me that being a college student caught up in the current of history is many times more macabre than it is epic, I still find myself perversely jealous of her for having experienced this American tragedy that continues to shape our national psyche.

Rightly or wrongly, almost our entire political spectrum has deified JFK and made him the martyr of the American Century. The most enduring image of a century filled with photographs is that of Jackie Kennedy in her bloodstained dress standing beside Lyndon Johnson as he is sworn in. There is nothing so poetic as a fallen king. JFK’s death added a heroic splendor to the Great Society initiatives — the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid — whose passage was fueled in part by his martyrdom. When we view our generation’s greatest challenges, from gay rights to healthcare to climate change, the narrative arcs seem woefully cynical compared to the tragic poetics of the 1960s.

There is a self-fulfilling prophecy underlying this reality; by rendering JFK a political demigod, Americans set themselves up to be disappointed by the foibles of his successors: Johnson and Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But 50 years ago, our nation stood united by an emotional bond unparalleled by anything in the half-century since, aside for 9/11. We must seize on the ephemeral outburst of JFK nostalgia, not to rehash conspiracy theories or to partake in the mythicizing of an admirable (but still human) president, but rather to remember that it is possible for our nation to be united on a path towards justice. It has happened. It is possible for our national experience, even the turbulent annals of the early 21st century, to approximate poetry, if we seek out heroism and force the frustrating glitches and asinine scandals onto the ash heap of history.

Even as we remember the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death on Friday, today, November 19, is the sesquicentennial anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: two discrete moments in time connected by America’s tumultuous attempt at a more perfect union. We should mark these events, not by lamenting how comparatively trivial our own times seem to be, but by crafting a future that is heroic rather than sordid, pragmatically optimistic rather than sarcastically defeatist. Then, in 2063 and 2113 and even 2163, our generation, too, will be so remembered.