Back when I was taking care of indoor plants at the Michigan Union, on whose steps John F. Kennedy announced his proposal for a Peace Corps, I noticed a disturbing phenomenon. As soon as a plant under my care happened to reach a state of perfect form and size, it would somehow become a target. It would be stolen, or blundered into, or, if it was in the U-Club, where beer was served, it would be spontaneously chosen as a receptacle for the vomit of some student celebrating Michigan's victory in a big game. There seemed to be peril in perfection.
I think of those plants when contemplating Kennedy's demise.
JFK wasn't perfect, but he had a lot going for him and he was evolving in a good direction. He was, they say, the first president to call civil rights a moral issue. He called people to a new era of public service. He had a combination similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt--privileged upbringing along with a prolonged personal struggle with pain and partial debility. Biographer James Tobin says Roosevelt's battle with polio, necessitating ongoing improvisation with remedies, gave him a confidence in his inner strength, a deeper compassion for others' suffering, and informed his non-ideological search for solutions to the Great Depression.
People see what they want to see in Kennedy. What I see in him, rightly or not, is what I want to see in the nation--a capacity to evolve, to learn from mistakes, to see reality without the filter of ideology, to take on tough challenges, to move from intolerance to compassion, from pettiness to magnanimity, and an understanding that self-realization and public service--the prosperity of the private and shared realms--are not at odds but closely linked.
The mourning of his death is heightened by an awareness that the nation has drifted away from these qualities. Themes I internalized while growing up in the afterglow of the World War II victory--the thrift my parents needed to survive the Great Depression, the courage, sacrifice and winning spirit celebrated in so many postwar movies--are sidelined in today's emphasis on consumerism, denial of grave threat, and indifference towards shared destiny. America's history since Kennedy is one of lessons unlearned-- the descent into Vietnam made all the worse by the subsequent descent into Iraq--of ideologies willfully disconnected from reality, and of passive collective surrender to the slow motion demolition that is climate change.
Military service, noble and mainstream in World War II, became something to avoid in the Vietnam War. Civilian public service, which in Kennedy's vision was a noble pursuit, became the shared sacrifice of 55 mph speed limits and lowered thermostats during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Not seeing any greatness or nobility in observing speed limits or wearing sweaters, people embraced Reagan's vision of national destiny as the maximization of self, at the expense of what is held in common. The appealing optimism of self-realization was shackled to an increasingly debilitating pessimism about our capacity to achieve anything together as a nation.
It's appealing to think that, if Kennedy had survived the bullets and the next election, the nation's trajectory would have been much different. Might a personal thawing between Kennedy and Khrushchev have led to a thawing of the Cold War? Might Kennedy's thinking have evolved quickly enough to realize the futility of involvement in Vietnam? Might the giving of oneself to a national cause, which made victory in World War II possible, have survived sufficiently to be mobilized in the fight to stop feeding climate change?
"Ask what you can do for your country". That most people aren't asking that question is the biggest void now. Those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II had no difficulty understanding that the nation's destiny depends on an individual's contribution to a shared project. Problems collectively created can only be collectively solved. Kennedy tried to sustain and recast that ethic for a new era. But now, public service has been enshrined as military service and the rescue work of what we call first responders, whose courage is in actuality the last line of defense against crises that no one acted earlier to avert. That enshrinement all too conveniently lets the rest of us off the hook. The individual's role became relegated, in George W. Bush's presidency, to shopping. When Barack Obama, in his first campaign for president, asked people ever so modestly to keep their tires inflated rather than extract more oil from our coastlines, he was ridiculed.
If the present were more illuminated, an unrealized presidency 50 years distant might seem a glimmer. It is the darkness that makes Kennedy's light burn so bright.