Clarence Page: Great martyrs leave us asking ‘What if?’
This is a big week for us Americans to argue about why we argue so much about Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. The argument, I will argue, is really all about us.
It is ironic and appropriate that the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination arrives on the same week as the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Long after their deaths, their legacies never seem to get old. That’s partly because we keep giving them new interpretations to suit our changing times.
Lincoln’s actions still spur arguments about his motives. Did he really intend to free the slaves or just save the Union? Was he really a closet racist? Was the war really about slavery or about economic differences between the industrial North and agrarian South — as if slavery were not a key element of Southern economics?
To send a clear response to such questions, Lincoln’s speech recast the war as a supreme test of whether this nation or any nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal ... can long endure”
Without mentioning the word “slavery,” he left little doubt in anyone’s mind when he called for “a new birth of freedom.”
Contrary to his forecast that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” his words joined the nation’s founding documents in our collective memory.
A century later his words echoed in the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, which began “Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we now stand....”
King also breathed new meaning into the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in his call for fulfillment of the Founding Fathers’ “promissory note” that for African Americans had “come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”
The job of unifying the nation was not done. It still isn’t. Arguments about our past leaders like Lincoln, King and Kennedy, each slain before his work was done, are really arguments between competing aspirational visions for our nation’s future.
That’s why I think people miss the point of Kennedy’s enduring impact when they judge him by his legislative record. As my generation of collegiates used to say, that’s like judging Bob Dylan by his singing ability.
JFK isn’t what he used to be in the public mind. We still associate him with the Peace Corps, the space program, the failed invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs and his earth-shaking death in Dallas — a tragic hero, cut down too soon.
For decades in the black working-class households of my youth, it was not uncommon to see three pictures hanging in the living room: Kennedy, King and Jesus.
But today’s younger generations are learning a different JFK. It has become fashionable to diminish or dismiss Kennedy’s brief presidency.
His achievements have been toned down in school textbooks, judging by the more than two dozen surveyed recently by The New York Times. After all, his attempts to launch Medicare, education and civil rights initiatives stalled until they were completed by his successor, the master legislator Lyndon B. Johnson.
“(D)espite the thinness of the record ... he has been the subject of the most successful public relations campaign in political history,” said Brit Hume, a senior political analyst for FOX News Channel, on Fox News Sunday. “It is a legend bordering, I think, on myth.”
But, of course, we humans hate to let mere facts get in the way of a good myth. Facts are what we study. Myths are what we live by.
A more interesting question to me is: What is it about the Kennedy myth that continues to take on new life in changing times?
After Vietnam, urban riots, Chappaquiddick, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Clinton’s impeachment and other tragedies and scandals — including some that have been revealed in JFK’s personal life — the idyllic “Camelot” myth of his era evaporated long ago.
Yet early death makes a popular figure forever young in our minds. The imagination takes over and raises endless “What if?” questions. We wonder and argue about what Lincoln, Kennedy and King might have achieved if they had the chance — and, more important, what work remains to be done.
Clarence Page’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Email him as firstname.lastname@example.org. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.