Saturday, November 23, 2002

The Last Liberal

It was four in the morning in the Philippines -- "where the world begins its day" -- and Bratcher, J. T., corporal in the Marines, was duty NCO, sitting in the small company office, lit by a cold florescent lamp, listening softly to the radio.

...we repeat, the President has been shot...the President was shot while...

It was one in the afternoon in Dallas, Texas, the 22nd of November 1963, and the reports of those shots, fired from the fifth floor of the School Book Repository, were crackling around the world. Tears streaming down his cheeks, corporal Bratcher entered the squad bay where his squad-mates lay asleep. Walking down the bay and banging his night-stick against the metal posts of the bunks, Corporal Bratcher yelled out, “They’ve killed Kennedy! They’ve shot the President.” “Oh shut the fuck up,” murmured some. Others sat up and jeered,

Serves the nigger-lover right!

On the other side of the world, Mark was walking toward the Main House. His personal copy of the New York Times waited for him on the big table by the entrance. There was still time to peruse the headlines with casual curiosity before lunch. He was just about to enter when an underclassman burst through the doors yelling that the president had been shot.

“Oh Shut up!" the senior snapped, "That's not a joke.”

“It’s true, it’s true; I swear it...!” the frosh cried before running off yelling across the commons.


In an hour the student body joined in solemn convocation; on the morrow, school was suspended and, in a few days, eyes clear and heart hurting, Mark would be standing on a patriot tombstone 100 yards from where the martyr was being laid to rest, as the flags snapped against the winter chill and the shrill of bag pipes pierced into the crisp blue skies.

Soon people would forget that there were those who hated the assassin's prey, although no one would forget where he was the moment he heard the shocking and dismal news. But wherever they were, it was before Vietnam and its cynical lies which wasted the faith of a people; before that dissipation of civic energies which styled itself a cultural counter-revolution; before a Supreme Court hostile to the very constitution it was charged with interpreting; before a politico-religious fundamentalism, hostile to liberalism, cast its pall over the land .... in a word, before that corruption which always exists latent within empire and power, ruptured forth. For that generation, the felling of the president marked the line between the Before and the After, between when idealism was still possible and when not.

In truth, Kennedy was not a nigger-lover. He sympathized personally with their public fight, but he was not disposed to infringe upon the sovereignty of the southern states or to destroy the Democratic Party which depended upon Dixiecrat support and without whom (together with the mayor of Chicago) it was incapable of winning the presidency.

Kennedy was also not much of a peace monger. On the contrary, he was more cold warrior than Nixon. He won the election by branding Humphrey a draft - dodger and falsely accusing the Eisenhower administration of having allowed a missile gap -- a supposed shortfall in missiles as against what the Soviets had. He launched an invasion of Cuba, obsessed over Laos; and who could forget that, playing hard ball with Russia, he almost blew up the world?

Nor could Kennedy be said to have been much of a progressive. To tell the truth, he was something of a fascist, in the manner of Roosevelt’s fascism-lite that characterized the New Deal. Kennedy was not at all opposed to the quasi military-corporate state that had existed since the second World War; nor was he adverse to using war-time emergency powers, still available to the presidency, although no one talked about them much in public. And if he did not oppose this intrinciscally militarized social order, he also did not have any plan to improve or amplify its social services -- in other words, to push the country at a snail’s pace towards what is now called social democracy.

The issue was much the same in cultural terms. In the normative and macho world of the Kennedys', women shone at home while the men, with crew-cuts and narrow ties, brought home the bacon and played touch football. And Chubby Checker sang the Twist.

There are those who think that if Kennedy had not been shot we would not have fallen into the Vietnam War. They forget, however, that it was Kennedy who had Diem assassinated and that the architects of that war, McNamara, Rusk and Bundy, were his advisors before they were Johnson’s. The difference between Kennedy and his successor was that while the southern Johnson destroyed the Democrat party in order to push through the Civil Rights Act, Kennedy would have turned the Vietnam War into a glorious crusade to which the youth of the land would have marched off smiling and flags a fluttering. The decade would have been very different from what it was.

In the beatification of the fallen hero, it is ignored that Kennedy was not the real author of his prize-winning books; that he was a notorious playboy; that, as much as Nixon after him, he secretly recorded conversations in the Oval Office; that he militarized counter-insurgency, that his brother, Bobby, did the dirty work of using the FBI to do dirty work, and that if "Jack" had won the election it was thanks to a few thousand votes “provided” by Mayor Jim Daley who exhorted his minions to “vote early and vote often.

In short, during his three years in office Kennedy accomplished little more than to make jokes at press conferences and nearly get us all blown to bits.

Nevertheless, even those who criticize him do not think ill of him. His memory unites such disparate individuals as the Marine corporal and the privileged Preppie. And if among the world of that generation everyone can tell you what they were doing when they heard “the” news, one has to ask, Why?

It is difficult to enter into the atmosphere of a past time; but it seems to me that Kennedy had what we call generosity. The ancient Romans spoke in similar vein of a “great” or munificent man. This quality has nothing to do with moral rights and wrongs much less with the pros and cons of political strategies, and even less with sentimentalities. It is something more primal: being “open” as opposed to “closed” or, as Jung had it, “affirming” rather than “denying”.

Kennedy charmed because he was sporting. He was competitive without being nasty or malicious and he fully expected you to be the same. Kennedy’s rhetoric was successful because it said nothing very specific. His sonorous generalizations allowed space to flights of fancy and provided blank targets for generous impulses.

This spirit of generosity -- what Americans really mean by liberalism -- also reflected what was expected of the United States. Although Kennedy spoke in the lexicon of the Second World War and did not doubt, not for a second, the mandate of American preeminence, he understood that leadership was a question of Us and not simply of Me. If Kennedy felt himself ein Berliner by the Wall, neither would he deny to a German, an Argentine or an Australian a share in the pride that “we of the free world” (led, to be sure, by the United States) had reached the moon.

At bottom, the embracing spirit which animated him and with which he sought to infuse the country, confided in self and in others. He was stranger to the unartful duplicity, the suspicious lack of confidence, the resentful hatreds and the self interested unilateralism which have, lamentably, so characterized U.S. politics since the three shots that sounded on that sunny November afternoon.

@WCG, 2002

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