01-12-2013 - Traces, n. 11


Kennedy’s broken dream
and our disappointment

His death marks our way of thinking about politics: great ideals end in tragedy or farce–unless we know what we are looking for.


Surveying the core condition of Western political culture in the recent past, it appears to be defined by a desire to recreate the conditions that disintegrated under the lethal aim of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas 50 years ago. Then, five years later, the same thing, when the equally lethal aim of Sirhan Sirhan snuffed out the life of another Kennedy, in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
 Culturally, we tend think of those events, those men and those times, as mere quirks of a particular moment. We think of John and Bobby Kennedy as almost superhuman figures. We think of the people who lived through that time in history as innocent compared to how we are now. There was something of the actor about JFK, who seemed to be as surprised by his arrival as anyone else. He was the first politician pop-star. Bobby was somehow different: radicalized by his brother’s death, he seemed to believe that history was calling him to something great, which made his death all the more crushing for those of us who were watching.  
JFK most enduring legacy is as the public figure who continues to correspond to some profound desire burning deep within us–something intangible, visceral, elementary–varying in intensity but somehow suggesting itself as essential, something in our being that appears structured to respond to an encounter with an exceptional human presence.
The “hope” offered by the Kennedys, perhaps precisely because it was so precipitately extinguished, lived on as a frustrated ideal, a burning desire that survives right to this very moment. Afterwards, the political world–the stage on which our public life is acted out–descended into what has seemed a relative torpor.  Many of those who rule and aspire to rule remain entranced by Kennedyesque ideals, yet seem far adrift of any hope of reclaiming their promise. If we watch public life as a movie today, we sense that the script is written as either tragedy or farce. We know “how it ends.” The political realm has been infected by a collective inability to dream adequately–because we have already “been there.”
The Kennedys were immortalized by their assassins, who froze their ideal in time, and also unleashed in the rest of us the darker part that insinuates disappointment as something inevitable, whispering–again–that all that seems great will be taken away.
And yet, a generation later, when no one was expecting it, the world was renewed in a different way–by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and this event was driven not by handsome liberal radicals but by two of the most “conservative” and elderly leaders in recent world history, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.
Cultural memory tells us that Jesus lived and died a young, handsome man, and still we scan the horizon for someone resembling Him. But the hope He represents travels in unexpected ways.  Sometimes it speaks though the radiant smiles of the young, sometimes the quietude of the old.
In the imagination of the Western world, everything secretly remains defined by the imprinted understandings of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. With such as the Kennedys–as inevitably with all mortal beings–the dates occurred in the wrong order: Easter first, with its hope and promise, and then the grief and horror of crucifixion. 
Unless we know what it is we are looking for, it is easy to be carried away by misunderstanding, to get things backwards, to forget that Calvary was not the end, but the necessary darkness before dawn.