By Thomas McEnery
It was nearly 20 years ago when John Kennedy gave the speech that began it all. It was a tocsin sounding the end of the placid ’50’s and beginning of another day.
Why do people have such antagonism to his rhetoric? Are the Kennedy’s really as bad as one is led to believe?
The fact that on one brisk, sunny morning, President Kennedy said that “the torch has been passed to a new generation,” and the further fact that he died soon thereafter seemed to have catalyzed animosities and distortions as intense as any of the adulation, and with far less credence. The pundits and columnists have responded to this impulse with great glee as each of his brothers have moved to center stage; they have magnified each defect and accentuated every flaw with the skill of a master surgeon and the gusto of a snake oil salesman.
America felt the tremendous loss that day in Dallas when an assassin ended the life of a president who reveled in ideas and exuded style. The aura of loss was devastating and the outpouring of grief very real. The tragedy has obscured so much.
The years passed, and with them much of the hurt and guilt. The strength and truth of the ideas of John Kennedy were masked; the style, only an overtone became the substance, and a casual article by Theodore White, hearkening to the days of mystic Camelot, became the reality.
People needed it I imagine. It made us all feel better. Our nation continued to wander into the morass of Asia with the same equanimity that we were to pursue in the policy of purchasing the cities of America with federal munificence – veneer with no direction. Similar crises had been faced by the country but these were exacerbated by a keen memory that heralded not what we were, but what we could be.
Across our television screens a portrait was etched ever more clearly. Men stumbled into rice paddies and ghetto streets, forgetting the reason for their entrance. Many in the media belatedly awoke to the fact that perhaps they had been too easy on Jack Kennedy and his embryonic policies, and for their own shortcomings blamed an after thought, Camelot.
Robert Kennedy had great clarity; he agonized over a decision to run for president against an incumbent carrying on a senseless war. Yet, he too, spoke in measured phrases, quoted Robert Frost, and used allusions to history and literature. He was concerned about people’s interpretations of his motives; he was thoughtful; he surely must have been a hypocrite. The critics were many.
There also seemed to be something in the news columnists’ tone resembling the old Brahmin distaste for the immigrant, Irish underclass. There was no trace that Bobby’s positions may have come from great introspection and suffering. Strength is in the symbols only when the principles and the policies that the symbols convey are of worth. Clarity would not suffice, for he had a heritage as diverse as our country – one that embraced the fledgling support of the egomaniacal red-baiter, Joe McCarthy, and the usurpation of the role of the mercurial Gene McCarthy. This was worsened by the riches of a fabled family and a reputation for tactless aggressiveness.
No room for growth was discerned; no allowance for honest intentions was made, the role of suffering forgotten. They were Irish upstarts and the scions of a questioned inheritance. Bobby epitomized all they were or might be. How correct the assessment was. The anointed family must be without sin. Even their enemies conceded that point. The captives of the imagery were bound securely. But who were they?
“We few, we happy few, we
band of brothers,
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”
How well the lines of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s speech ring, and how jingoistic they resound in the wrong mouth, from the wrong person. John Kennedy loved that quote; Robert repeated Shaw and Shakespeare with ease.
A hotel kitchen in Los Angeles was the next Arthurian stop, and we wept for this “ruthless, little man,” this purveyor of quotes. Can one really believe that his passion was merely an act? Credulity is strained. A bullet again decides the course of a nation, and darkness descends, but a little light moves still in the shadows.
The Kennedy’s knew history well and used it expertly. Aware that it could be construed as merely “crimes, misfortunes and follies” as Voltaire thought, and not wishing to reduce the past to that sorry conclusion, they tried to use its wisdom as the genesis of discovery for the present and future. They utilized the thoughts of men long dead; they tried to lead. This was apparent in John and manifest in Robert. They made errors, but were secure enough to grow with those mistakes.
Certain values transcend the ages – love, hope, inspiration, even if they are carried by “just another Irish politician.” Can truth be any less so even if it is spoken with rhetorical flourishes, Boston accents, or uttered by one flawed in some personal way? The pundits and erstwhile moralist may answer.
In this Kennedy campaign, we are surely reminded of what G. K. Chesterton meant when he said, “that men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals.” He is returning to some values that will no lie down and that he refuses to consider blunted merely for lack of use.
Ted Kennedy could sit out another presidential election. It would be a prudent course. The vulnerability of his past and his family are well known, and many stand ready to revel in them. Prudence is not enough in the America of today. It is certainly not a Kennedy trait.
How well the critics of the Kennedy’s and their times have been captured by their own ridiculous antipathy to a legend that never was. One they created. Camelot. Xanadu. Shangri-La.
Can they actually believe that the legions from Brookline to Berryessa rise for the Kennedy’s rather than for what they symbolize? This family has understood suffering. These brothers have had strength because they have managed to touch the many extremities of our country at once, and herein lies whatever greatness they possess.
What they touched is what is decent and lasting in a transient world. Any private flaws speak not to this thesis, but to a topic of only personal importance and some footnote in a to-be-forgotten history or trite novel.
Ideas move minds, and sometimes souls. When the stirrings begin, however slight the ripple may now seem, look not to Madison Avenue hypes, opinion polls, or clever historical allusions, but into each of us, and see what touches that feeling that the old can live in dignity, the young in hope and our people with a longing for the future. It is this that makes many wish for just one more St. Crispin’s Day.
Thomas McEnery is a San Jose city council member.