Thursday, November 21, 2013
Death of Hope
I’m a child of the post-Camelot America, being born a year after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This week the world notes the 50th anniversary of the murder, and with it come reflections, analysis and not a few conspiracy theories. There’s little debate, however, that November 22, 1963 in Dallas marked the death of hope for a generation.
The rest of the 1960’s were marked by often violent clashes between groups – whether it was over issues of war, poverty or a rash of other issues as America broke free of its 1950’s constraints. More assassinations followed so that the death of an inspirational leader (like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy) became part of the landscape of America.
In February of 2008 in the midst of the primary campaign Barack Obama was suddenly surging ahead of then front-runner and expected nominee Hillary Clinton. I remarked to a friend: “I hope he don’t win.” My friend, expecting a rash of policy invective from me was surprised when I gave my reason: “They’ll probably kill him.” My own cynicism and years of seeing violence as a tactic in American politics had led me to the likelihood that a smart, successful, passionate leader of color would more likely be killed than serve as President. It certainly wasn’t a glowing commentary on the state of race relations in America and likely reflected some innate racism of my own. Of course I didn’t want that to happen (then or now or ever), nor was I predicting it, but in my mind I was somehow expecting it.
The junior Senator from Illinois went on to best the former First Lady and sweep past a war hero to become the 44th President. He did so with a carefully crafted campaign that instilled hope, optimism and brought millions of young citizens into the political process. Five years on, barely a year after his reelection, President Obama carries his lowest personal and job approval ratings ever. The rollout of his signature legislative victory has been a fiasco. Gridlock in the nation’s capital is so extreme that partisanship bests policy. The economy continues to stagnate as Congress is unable to pass a budget, let alone agree to fund the debts it has already incurred without performing a three-act Opera. Fingers are pointed and responsibility is abdicated. The notion of hope that Obama preached is a bittersweet memory from those who most supported him and those of us who didn’t, but still wanted him to succeed.
Had my remark come to fruition, I wonder whether the spirit of Obama would have prevailed more than the reality. There’s some debate over the effectiveness of JFK as an actual President versus his impact as a martyr and the slew of legislative victories that followed under President Johnson’s tutelage. Could Joe Biden have gotten bipartisan support for health care, economic reforms, etc.? Would Hillary have been tapped and appointed as VP? We’ll never know, and it’s rather morbid to hypothesize. As we mark the 50th Anniversary of the death of the Camelot-era – we do so against a backdrop of the birth and death of hope for today’s generation. In this case, though, the leader lives on and is the one who killed his own dream.