The end of the American Century sadly started on Nov. 22, 1963
We had lost presidents before. Franklin Roosevelt had died in office less than twenty years before that Friday in Dallas.
But while he was only 63 (ironically), FDR appeared to be much older. And his Great Work – guiding the County through the Great Depression; Winning the Second World War; taking nascent steps to reconstuct a war-torn world – were, in large measure completed by April, 1945.
But John F Kennedy’s great promise was only burgeoning in November 1963. His popularity was soaring, especially in comparison with his exceedingly narrow – and somewhat controversial – election only three years earlier.
Jack Kennedy may have been a flawed man, an yes, a less-than- perfect president. Yet he brought to his brief time in the Oval Office a keen intellect; an easy grace; an impeccable sense of style, qualities in woefully short supply among our so-called “leaders” today.
Oh. And A-Nerve-of-Steel, as evidenced by his saving us from the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation little more than a year removed from Kennedy’s untimely demise. (The President was “the smartest guy in the room”, according to one man – whose name I don’t recall – but who was a JFK’s confidante throughout the 1962 Cuban Missile Crises.)
But the reason JFK’s death, 50 years ago last Friday (which fell on the exact day of the week, as well) continues to resonate in the national consciousness – even among those who weren’t necessarily attuned to Kennedy-style politics – remains the trauma and turmoil the assassination of the president rent like a fissure in the Country’s Soul.
A “silly little communist” (as the newly widowed first lady said of the assassin on the weekend he had murdered her husband – armed only with a $20 mail-order rifle) had gunned down The Leader of the Free World.
But Dallas signaled that America had lost its uniqueness. Its invincibility. A sense that we were invulnerable to the vicissitudes of fate that plagued those “lesser nations” of Africa, Asia and even Europe
And perhaps most significantly, the Nation became more insular, turning away from the optimistic, “can-do” spirit that had permeated JFK’s New Frontier, epitomized by the Gemini/Apollo space project and the Peace Corps.
A rather amicable consensus that government best functions when it “works for the betterment of all” splintered into an increasingly narrow focus on “what’s in it for me and mine.”
But, most perniciously, America’s perhaps self-aggrandizing image as “The Benevolent Benefactor of Peace, Democracy and Freedom,” which was the undergirding principle of the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy, rapidly devolved into an arrogant, unbecoming swagger.
Admittedly, I am viewing John F Kennedy’s fleeting Moment in the Sun through the rosy lens of nostalgia.
But, as an observer of the American Experiment from my mid-teens to my mid-well whatever, I must honestly confront the reality that Camelot’s End unleashed a misama of foreign crises, domestic upheaval, economic discontent and societal unrest, from which America has never fully recovered.
America was no longer ascendant
The Bright Light of The American Century had been vanquished, Nov. 22, 1963.
Will it ever ignite again…?