JFK & OBAMA: The once and future king
“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. … Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus”
-JFK FROM HIS SPEECH AT THE 1960 DNC
In November 1963, my father drove his new blue Volkswagen from El Paso where we lived to the San Antonio Airport to see President Kennedy arrive. Although the presidential visit to the city is now merely a footnote in the timeline leading up to the tragic events a day later, it is a clear memory for me. I was just a little kid, but still old enough to distinctly recall my father’s elation when he spoke about the event at the dinner table that night. I remember him saying more than once that “his hair was so red!” and how the First Lady was prettier than her photos. Then he talked about moving to California; a big dream for him that was somehow made more plausible with the inspiring glimpse of Jack and Jackie on the tarmac that day. In modern terms, relocating to a new city is relatively common. America is presently a movable nation. However, for a guy who had put himself through college while raising three kids and working for wages at American Airlines as a baggage handler, it was mostly inconceivable. Yet, on that night, the fantasy became tangible for him because if Kennedy could pay a visit to a small west Texas town, anything was possible. Of course, the following day it all came crashing down. I remember that, too. I was outside playing in the carport while my mom and grandma watched their daily soap opera As the World Turns. I went into the house to find them holding each other in tears. In my young mind, I thought I had done something wrong. So, I hid. I did not come out until my older brother and sister came home early from school because it had closed early due to the president’s assassination. Not long after my father arrived. Bereft, all he could say was ‘they killed him…” I stood silently staring at him, very afraid because it was the first time I had seen him cry.
If you want to find someone to tell you where they were when Kennedy was shot just throw a rock and you’ll hit one. There is still a generation of us around whose brains play host to a memory that becomes more electric over time. The reason for it is somewhat simple. Kennedy was the first pop star in politics. So, when Camelot fell that bloody day at Dealey Plaza, it was a sucker punch to anyone who had found a manifesto of hope and self-determination in the New Frontier speech at the 1960 Democratic Convention: “For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won—and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier…but the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.”
From the beginning, Kennedy’s savvy use of radio and television shot him straight up the charts to be the patron saint of the common man. Never mind that he came from a wealthy family and as a young Crimson blade at Harvard he never carried any cash. His friends would pay his tab and send the bill to his father Joe, who had built a fortune on stock holdings, real estate and shrewd business ventures that might have been illegal. Kennedy was a millionaire by the age of 21. Upon taking office as the 35th President of the United States he donated his presidential salary to charity. Richard Reeves, author of President Kennedy: Profile in Power writes: “His $100,000 salary as President was being divided, after taxes, among two dozen charities, including the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, the United Negro College Fund, and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.”
Kennedy was the whole package, the genuine article, the real McCoy. He created a media blitz that is still studied by young people today. He was rich, had an all-Ivy degree, was a war hero. He was married to the glamorous Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, who was from Wall Street money. They shared two perfect children. While Kennedy reeked of entitlement it never alienated him from the common man because he played up his Irish roots and his Roman Catholic religion. Those two things just in terms of population let him cast a pretty big net over the nation. Throw in his idealism that freedom will trump communism during Cold War paranoia, his initiating the Peace Corps which he described as “young Americans using their desire for service to help mankind”, his fine manners, quick wit and matinee idol smile, and it is a full-proof iconic alchemy. Besides all of that, Kennedy got us to the moon before the Russians.
So what’s not to like about him? According to his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower – a lot. Ike so abhorred Kennedy for his money and its resulting political manipulations that he once commented about the ‘young whipper-snapper’ with unmitigated sarcasm: “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.” No matter. Kennedy was made of Teflon. Nothing stuck. From history’s first televised presidential debate where he steamrolled Richard Nixon to his slick appearances on Jack Parr and Eleanor Roosevelt’s talk shows, Kennedy was transported from the throne of the White House to the living rooms of people who felt as if they were the extended relations of royalty.
Kennedy died too young and too cool to comment on his politics. However, the man crafted the torch then lit its eternal flame in his 1,037-day term. For decades the democrats yearned for everything Kennedy and bemoaned the untimely passing of his New Frontier mantra in much the same manner as the WWII generation thumped their chests for “Harry-the-buck-stops-here-Truman”. Over the years, ambitious American politicians sought to emulate the JFK persona by crediting his influence on their lives. Bill Clinton toted a photo of him at age-16 shaking Kennedy’s hand in White House rose garden. He claims it was one of the most influential moments of his young life and inspired him to become president #42. In 1988, the Republican Dan Quayle likened himself to Kennedy idealism until his Democratic opponent Lloyd Bentsen called him out during a vice presidential debate: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Still the search for the future king went on. The forty years of waiting could almost be likened to the Biblical tribes of Israel wandering in the desert. It seemed that anyone with their eye on living in the big house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue needed the illusive Kennedy sorcery to pull Excalibur from the stone. Then somewhere in the new millennium a little known senator from Illinois arrived on the scene. He was the perfect candidate to take up the quest because in an age when cellphones, surveillance technology and real time videos record the slightest misdeed, he was an empty vessel. Hence, the inception of Rainbow Hope Obama; a skinny guy in a pencil suit with vanilla sex appeal that fit nicely into a society of Banana Republic androgyny. And he had that poster of him gazing off into the ‘it’s nice-to-be-nice’ future of America. Like Kennedy, he energized a younger generation of millennials by becoming a cyber leader through the use of social media. He played basketball, smoked cigarettes and watched The Wire on his down time. He was well-spoken, but tried not to sound too brilliant to his constituents and he had a unique habit of listening to vitriolic hecklers like a laid back math teacher.
Add to that a beautiful wife, Michelle, who was brilliant in her own right with an undergrad degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard. She had style that made women feel pretty good about themselves even when schlepping around in crocs and sweats. As First Lady to #44 she did her gig on the Disney Channel teaching a younger generation about good nutrition. She was the mother of two young girls, Sasha and Malia, who were such rabid Jonas Bros. fans (which eventually evolved into Chance the Rapper) that on their first night in the White House while their parents were off at inaugural balls, were paid a surprise visit by Nick, Joe and Kevin themselves. The event was nothing if not endearing to any tweener mom. The addition of a family dog named Bo brought back memories of the Kennedy White House in the days of yore when Caroline used to ride her pony on the front lawn.
During his two terms as president, Obama’s administration kept us all in the loop via FB, tweets, hashtags and any incarnation of social media. Like it or not, he put us all on the front lines when he moved to end the unpopular war in the Middle East. Then we watched the girls grow up and one of them got a gig as an intern on an HBO soap opera that would turn the ghost of Simone de Beauvoir into a poltergeist while Michelle danced to Uptown Funk with Ellen and Barack showed his jovial side between two ferns with Zach Galinfianakis.
Meanwhile, in Obamaland the knights of his administration were girding their loins to dismantle the America medical industrial machine with the affordable the healthcare act. It made health insurance possible for a one demographic that would not have otherwise had it. However, for the demographic twice removed, it was catastrophic. In a world where a baby boomer turns 50 every seven-seconds, Obamacare has insured that they will not live to an old age because most of them were either been dropped from their medical insurance plans or have simply chosen not to pay the monthly premiums that often amount to the combined payments of two BMW M4s. In the end, it was a war of attrition that shifted the attention from the has-beens to the well-being of a future generation much like his strategy to bail out the housing market. Loan modifications allowed some to save their houses from foreclosure. Yet, for others who had doggedly made their monthly mortgage payments and needed to refinance in order to bear the subsequent outer limits interest rates, it forced them to sell. The upside is that the debacle created the tiny house craze. It’s cute, affordable and a hit show on HGTV. And let’s not forget about Obama killing the bad guy. Yep, he found Osama Bin Ladin’s house and gave the order to land that whisper helicopter on its roof so Seal Team 6 could terminate with extreme prejudice the Dr. Evil of 9/11. Then he disposed of the body in an unknown part of the ocean with the other Decepticons thus giving Americans some closure on the tragic al-Qaeda terrorist attacks a decade before. While none of the Obama administrations were decisive enough victories to unite the country, the media spin was a shift of momentum toward a New Frontier.
In an age where live stream makes history by the millisecond, it is impossible to create a suitable conclusion to the chronicles of the once and future king. Their administrations will continue to play out in a manner that should, as society moves on to other things, become more quixotic. Still, eight years with Obama will leave an indelible mark because even a cyber generation must have its defining myths and heroes. Which gets me back to where I began with my dad and Kennedy and Texas…sometime after the JFK’s funeral but before the next Christmas, my dad packed us into that blue same Volkswagen and we headed west to the Golden State. For him, the man had died but the dream had not.