Sunday, November 23, 2008

Past and Present

It wasn't really a headline anywhere, but many newspapers and even an online news service or two took note of the 45th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination this weekend. It was trendy for awhile to declare where you were when you heard the bad news from Dallas in 1963. I now think that part is the least interesting part.
But Kennedy himself WAS interesting. He really wasn't exactly an activist president, but it didn't seem to matter. He was following Eisenhower, and so it was easy to LOOK like an activist. He was cool. He was smooth. He was thin. He was, let's admit, a good-looking guy. He was like the cool guy in school that everyone liked. Lyndon Johnson, vice president, was more like the cool guy's goon who got in your face to make things happen.
That's how we remember Kennedy because the tough decision about whether or not to escalate the war in Vietnam got left to Johnson to make, and he decided badly. To this day, no one knows if Kennedy would have been smart enough to make a different decision. Some people pretend they know, but they don't. Looking back, it's easy to say Johnson was a fool, but the decision he made was with all of Kennedy's smart-guy advisers (Halberstam called them "The Best and the Brightest") backing him up. It may be more likely that ALL of them were in over their heads regarding things they didn't understand, as they drowned in American hubris, the quality of having TOO MUCH faith in your knowledge and abilities for your own good. I go back and forth on the Kennedy question. I'm not wise, but at least I know it. The hubris pool is finally drying up, at least until the neocons get replaced by a group pumping for the next war, who will go by another made-up name.

Does anyone remember Shelby Foote, the southern historian who was featured as one of the main storytellers on Ken Burns' megadocumentary, "The Civil War"? I recall a scene in which Foote described a quality ascribed to Lincoln - being able to "go outside oneself" to see the consequences of a certain decision path. This quality, Foote thought, was proof of high intelligence and wisdom.
I only bring it up now, confessing that I don't know WHAT having that quality means, but I noted two journalists on TV discussing the same exact trait being possessed by - Barak Obama. I wish him well, as all Americans should, and hope that he can squeeze wise decisions from himself and his administration every single day. We need them.


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