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America has been in mourning for 45 years.
On the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was shot and killed by a sniper as he rode in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Texas. That infamous weekend was the beginning of 24 hour saturation television news coverage, the moment when the post-war generation of baby boomers received their first initiation of the brutal underbelly beneath the American dream, it was the beginning of the political drama of the 1960’s that almost tore the US apart as the lid was lifted on America’s unease with its superpower status, the divide between rich and poor and the cancer of racial injustice. It is a drama that is unresolved and still poisons American society today. As a new young energetic African-American President appears to have the White House within his reach, it appears there is a chance that the festering wound opened in 1963 may finally be closed.
Or maybe not.
John F. Kennedy, was the epitome of the American rich kid, the pampered great-grandson of an Irish immigrant, Patrick Kennedy, who died of cholera on November 22, 1858, exactly 105 years to the day before his descendent succumbed to his wounds in Trauma Room One of Parkland Hospital. The Kennedy clan that he founded climbed the greasy pole of Machiavellian American business and politics in a manner not too dissimilar to the ruthless Corleone family of Mario Puzo’s fiction or the Ewings of the TV series Dallas. Joseph P. Kennedy, JFK’s father, a real-life Gatsby, made his fortune on Wall Street, real estate, Hollywood movies and bootlegging. He had affairs with movie starlets and financed the campaign of FDR. For his trouble he got the plum job as Chairman of the SEC and later became Ambassador to Britain. His ruthless drive spurred on his four sons to continue the family dynasty. Kennedy following World War 2 was notorious for his appeasement of Nazism, his anti-Semitism and anti-Communist views. He was the driving force behind the careers of his boys; when his eldest son Joseph Jnr., who was he was hoping would run for political office, was blown to pieces during a suicidal bombing mission over Europe (the Kennedy clans has always been haunted by ill luck arising from their almost psychotic recklessness) he transferred his energies onto Jack, a sickly boy who was more interested in cramming on sex with endless damsels before he was expected to expire young from his various ailments.
Jack Kennedy was everything that Americans love in their public figures: looks, grace, class and feel good sentiment. The Greatest Generation – young men and women who were grew up in poverty in the Great Depression, out-produced and out-fought Nazism and Japanese Imperialism and won (the greater Russian contribution was ignored) the right to global superpower status, took full advantage of the GI bill to get a college education, continued the pos-war prosperity and produced the baby boom generation. They came of age in the Kennedy era, genuinely believing that American democratic capitalist society would topple communism and eradicate global poverty and injustice. After the horrors of World War 2, the bloody stalemate of the Korean War and the prospect of nuclear annihilation, many were determined that there would be an enlightened peaceful future, that liberal values would be triumphant and wonders like space travel would transform the world for the better.
Jack Kennedy, of course was a ruthless cold warrior, who aggressively increased the size of the American military and its nuclear arsenal and set out to confront Communism in Europe, Latin America and South East Asia. Like George W. Bush, he used the politics of fear to the maximum, the fear of global Soviet aggression. It was Kennedy who increased the number of US advisors in South Vietnam, who gave the go-ahead for the abortive invasion of Cuba by anti-communist exiles, was prepared to risk all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union and who sanctioned the assassination of President Diem of South Vietnam. Kennedy presided over a huge expansion of the military industrial complex yet continued to dither over how best to deploy it fearing the same fate suffered by Truman who committed combat troops to an unpopular war in Korea. He was lukewarm toward blacks and was not prepared to risk losing the support of openly racist Democrats in the Deep South who threatened to turn Republican. Had Kennedy lived beyond November 1963, he could well have been dragged into the Vietnam quagmire just like President Johnson, he could well have been vilified by the anti-war baby boomers just as Johnson was and he might have been forced to resign in disgrace if lurid stories of his legendary reckless adulteries ever came to light just as Nixon was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal.
Kennedy died at the opportune time before the ugly problems of American society could really explode to damage him politically or his gilded image could be tarnished. He died and was subsequently eulogised as a liberal Arthurian hero who was robbed from the American people before he could achieve true greatness. The myth built up around him meant that all subsequent Presidents from Johnson to Dubya, no longer parading in open limousines but behind a phalanx of Secret praetorian guards, would always been seen as pretenders to the throne and that that Americans would always await another white knight who would restore the American dream sullied the by the ordeal of Vietnam and rescue them from the sordid realities of a turbulent violent world.
Kennedy was everything that Lee Harvey Oswald was not. Kennedy was a war hero, dashing, confident, an orator and an intellectual who enjoyed the fruits of the American pursuit of happiness. Oswald, skinny, awkward, friendless, confused and angry, used the only skill he knew, the ability to shoot a high powered rifle, picked up during his stint in the U.S. Marines, was a total failure in every aspect of his short fruitless life. His one shot at fame was the fluke that the open limousine passed directly beneath the windows of the shabby book warehouse where he worked, during his lunch break, and he took it.
Kennedy was hit in the back of the neck and throat by one of the three bullets fired from the 6th floor window
His lifelong back troubles and injuries he recieved when his PT-109 torpedo boat was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer meant that he wore rigid back brace that kept him upright in the backseat of the limosine before the final fatal shot tore open his skull.
Oswald was a man ahead of his time, who had tried to live up to the American ideal of manhood and failed, tried the radical alternative of a utopian life in Soviet Russia, found it equally empty and oppressive and sought fame and notoriety instead. His “fifteen minutes,” during which he basked in the limelight like a modern day Billy The Kid, was as fleeting as the shelf life of a 21st century reality TV contestant. Jack Ruby, another failed individual who made his living from topless strippers long before the rise of internet porn, sought hero status by killing the assassin of the President. Subsequently more misfits sought to prove the supposed innocence of Oswald to peddle their books and pet theories all of which contradicted one another. Hollywood movies like Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK” gave Oswald in the death, the victim status he demanded in life.
Bobby Kennedy and the modern day Moses, Martin Luther King, shining lights extinguished, again by paupers, in the midst of Vietnam and racial turmoil that threatened the future of the Republic, convinced many that the liberal post-war dream was well and truly finished. The hippie and radical movements gradually evaporated and the embittered remnants were the Manson family, the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army and the deluded unfortunates drank at cyanide laced Kool-Aid at Jonestown. Watergate, the Nixon resignation, drugs, promiscuity, crime, serial killers, senseless spree shootings and economic stagnation during the 1970’s following defeat in Vietnam convinced many that American dream was over and that the death of Kennedy was the beginning of all the problems, fueled conspiracy theories about a secret shadow government among the loony left and extreme right. The rise of the Christian Right emerged following the 1960’s as millions of American tried to return to a pre-Kennedy era certainties and this cohort supported Ronald Reagan, a politician of the same generation as Kennedy, who took the credit for the ending the Cold War. Bush Sr.’s easy victory over Iraq in 1991 convinced them they could win wars again. Millions of liberals believed that the Clinton era now was the chance for the baby boomer generation to restore some of the old Kennedy values. Clinton however was hardly a Kennedy, with a paunch, minus the haircut and a media prepared to turn a blind eye to his sexual misbehaviour.
Again, as the 20th century closed, American seemed unchallenged, all powerful militarily and economically, a weakened Russia tamed and humiliated, China embracing capitalism, Iraq and Iran posing problems but contained by sanctions, air strikes and carrier groups in the Gulf while Israel and Palestinians were finally making peace. The problems of Africa and Afghanistan were not their business.
9/11 exposed America’s weaknesses for all to see.
Interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the limits of military power against sophisticated and resourceful Muslim fundamentalists while the global economy faces the greatest trial since the crash of 1929. The democratic capitalist US seems set to play second fiddle to autocratic capitalist China while nonaligned nations pick and chose their own direction after decades within the American sphere of influence. Americans cannot tolerate a multi-polar world and still believe in their manifest destiny as passionate as ever. George W. Bush, easily the most reviled American President in decades, is especially despised not just for his failures but for exposing the ugly truth to his complacent citizens. Bush basked in the high popularity rating for any sitting President following 9/11, as Americans convinced themselves that because the cause was “just” that they could recreate the victories of past wars until the emptiness of his rhetoric was exposed for all to see. Incomprehension at American failure, has led some to convince themselves that 9/11 was actually an “inside job” like the assassination of JFK before.
Barack Obama, seems to have donned the mantle of the old Kennedy Camelot, the new hope of the Y generation and nostalgic baby boomers, promising like magic extricate the US from foreign military entanglements, bring peace to the Middle East through diplomacy not bombs and bullets and restore American standing in the world in order to get gas prices down. Americans in mourning since 1963 have convinced themselves yet again that they can recreate that mythical Golden Age of Pericles as Obama becomes first citizen of Athens.
They had better be prepared for bitter disappointment. If Obama does disappoint he will be thankful he drives in a heavily armoured tank rather than an open topped limousine.