I didn't write about JFK's death on the 50th anniversary. I just wanted to think about it and see what others had to say. And to grieve. As Adlai Stevenson said 50 years ago, "We shall bear the grief of his death until the day of our own."
Now - two days after November 22 - there seems to be something worth noting which has received virtually no mention by anyone else: JFK and Obama have a lot in common. In fact, that's in large part why I became an Obama supporter. They share the ability to speak to the best in us. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy also had this ability. Teddy Kennedy too had the gift at his best moments, such as the 1980 Democratic convention when, in his concession speech, he said, "The dream will never die." Until 2008 the dream seemed to have died with JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby. Not even Bill Clinton approached their ability to move us, while the GOP, even with its "Communicator" Ronald Reagan, deliberately spoke to the worst in us, using coded language for racism.
Then, after 40 years from the silencing of Martin and Bobby, we again heard the voice. Obama spoke to the better angels of our nature. And he had the smile, the intelligence, the restraint, the wit, and the ultimate cool of JFK. He lifted the hearts of the people, especially the young, just as JFK had done.
It's important, however, to remember that not everybody loved JFK, just as now not everybody loves Obama. JFK didn't even top 50% of the vote as Obama has twice done. Like Lincoln, JFK was a "minority president". There was even a sizable segment that thought he'd stolen the election in 1960 by having Mayor Richard Daley stuff the ballot boxes of Chicago. Like Obama he too was an "illegitimate president" for a lot of Americans.
JFK's sudden death changed people's perspective. Although less than 50% actually had voted for him, after his death an amazing 64% claimed they had.
It was not too late for this surge in popularity to be useful. Like Obama, JFK had not been been able get done in Washington all that he wanted to. He wanted a civil rights bill, but his own party's Southern Democrats in the Senate were never going to let that happen. In the end he had to die for it. It is the absolute consensus of historians, and those who were part of the events, that President Johnson could not have gotten civil rights enacted without the death of Kennedy.
We paid a terrible price for a great good. Was it worth it? Of course it was. John Kennedy would have said so too. After all, he had almost died in World War II fighting for our freedom. He would not have begrudged his life to making possible the freedom of millions of black people and the eventual opening of the road of another young president to the White House.
The second thing worth noting is that the intransigent Southerners who hated JFK are mostly the same intransigent haters of Obama today. For them the Civil War is never over, blacks are never free and equal, and they still believe the future of the country must be with them, that they can ignore the outcome of elections, the changes in our culture, and the will of the majority. It was repugnant to them to have a Catholic in the White House, and now it is even more repugnant to have a black man as president. Of course these are not exactly the same individuals, but they are the same demographic: white, older, mostly male, Southern, evangelical and rural. They are as undereducated, ignorant and prejudiced as they were back then.
Yes, there has been great progress in America and the world in 50 years. But, sadly, that stubborn segment of America never progresses. For them there is a never a leader to lead them upward, only those who would pander to their hatreds and stoke their fears. They are the poorest and most pathetic people in the world, for they live among plenty yet fear for their survival as if life were entirely a competition. They live without the joy of sharing our cultural diversity because they hate "the other". And their only dream is a dream of the past, of a slave-holding society that fought the "glorious lost cause", that was predicated on the doctrines of "secession" and "nullification" that these fools yet speak of 150 years later.
Fortunately, they are mostly old and dying. Though they struggle to deny the vote to the young and the people of color, they are drifting into irrelevance. Tomorrow does not belong to them. All they have is a long-ago yesterday. Tomorrow belongs to John Kennedy, Barack Obama, and all of us who share the dream that never dies: equality, freedom, peace and prosperity for all.
Have a blessed Thanksgiving. and let us all be thankful for the brave vision John Kennedy set before us and for any opportunity we have to make this dream possible for our children and grandchildren and all the children of the world.