Fifty years ago this November 22, two bullets slammed into the neck and head of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
It has been said that he left his country with three great legacies:
- The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty;
- The Apollo moon landing; and
- The Vietnam war.
Of these, the following can be said with certainty:
- The Test Ban Treaty has prevented atmosphereic testing–and poisoning–by almost all the world’s nuclear powers.
- After reaching the moon–in 1969–Americans quickly lost interest in space and have today largely abandoned plans for manned exploration.
- Under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam; 153,303 were wounded; and billions of dollars were squandered in a hopeless effort to intervene in what was essentially a Vietnamese civil war. From 1965 to 1972, the war angrily divided Americas as had no event since the Civil War.
But there was a fourth legacy–and perhaps the most important of all: The belief that mankind could overcome its greatest challenges through rationality and perseverence.
White House painting of JFK
At American University on June 10, 1963, Kennedy called upon his fellow Americans to re-examine the events and attitudes that had led to the Cold War.
And he declared that the search for peace was by no means absurd:
“Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.
“Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.”
Today, politicians from both parties cannot agree on solutions to even the most vital national problems.
On November 21, 2011, the 12 members of the “Super-Committee” of Congress, tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in cuts in government spending, threw up their hands in defeat.
President Kennedy speed-read several newspapers every morning. He nourished personal relationships with the press-–and not for entirely altruistic reasons.
These journalistic relationships gave Kennedy additional sources of information and perspectives on national and international issues.
In 2012, Republican Presidential candidates celebrated their ignorance of both.
Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain famously said, “We need a leader, not a reader.” Thus he excused his ignorance of the reasons for President Barack Obama’s intervention in Libya.
Texas Governor Rick Perry showed similar pride in not knowing there are nine judges on the United States Supreme Court:
“Well, obviously, I know there are nine Supreme Court judges. I don’t know how eight came out my mouth. But the, uh, the fact is, I can tell you–I don’t have memorized all of those Supreme Ccourt judges. And, uh, ah–
“Here’s what I do know. That when I put an individual on the Supreme Court, just like I done in Texas, ah, we got nine Supreme Court justices in Texas, ah, they will be strict constructionists….”
In short, it’s the media’s fault if they ask you a question and your answer reveals your own ignorance, stupidity or criminality.
During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke with aides about a book he had just finished: Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, on the events leading to World War 1.
He said that the book’s most important revelation was how European leaders had blindly rushed into war, without thought to the possible consequences.
Kennedy told his aides he did not intend to make the same mistake-–that, having read his history, he was determined to learn from it.
Contrast that with today’s woeful historical ignorance among Republican Presidential candidates-–and those who aspire to be.
Consider Sarah Palin’s rewriting of history via “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”:
“He warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and, um, making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that, uh, we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.”
In fact, Revere wasn’t warning the British about anything. Instead, he was warning his fellow Americans about an impending British attack–as his celebrated catchphrase “The British are coming!” made clear.
Republicans have attacked President Obama for his Harvard education and articulate use of language. Among their taunts: “Hitler also gave good speeches.”
And they resent his having earned most of his income as a writer of two books: Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope. As if being a writer is somehow subversive.
When knowledge and literacy are attacked as “highfalutin’” arrogance, and ignorance and incoherence are embraced as sincerity, national decline lies just around the corner.
In retrospect, the funeral for President Kennedy marked the death of more than a rational and optimistic human being. It marked the death of Americans’ pride in choosing reasoning and educated citizens for their leaders.
The Eternal Flame at the grave of President John F. Kennedy