This week marks the 47th anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination which took place barely two years into his first term. The myth of a fallen Camelot created in the wake of his murder fed the illusion that America had lost out on a chance at ennobling itself and solving all its social ills. Yet had he lived, his real legacy would likely have been that of LBJ, blamed for disastrous social and military policies, and disavowed by the same young liberals who had once embraced him.
With JFK, liberals were able to reinvent the New Deal, not as a paternalistic Big Brother response to an economic crisis, but as the New Frontier of progressive striving. If the New Deal was materialistic, the New Frontier was idealistic. It did not foist government intervention on us in order to feed and clothe us, but to make us better people. To turn America into the country that it was "meant to be".
Hope and Change tried to combine both themes, with Hope reflecting the New Frontier's plan to transform American society into a beacon of social justice, and Change gesturing to the New Deal's economic controls and crisis management. But that only made it an awkward fit. Obama talked Hope and practiced Change, but unlike the New Deal it was a change disconnected from the economic concerns of ordinary Americans. And Obama's own borrowed JFK mythology only made him seem more distant from those concerns.
Like JFK, Obama was a glamorous myth with a seedy truth hiding underneath. A shiny new car with mud on its wheels and far worse on the undercarriage. We already know some of it now. We will likely have to wait decades to learn all of it. But it paradoxically that very seediness that seems to give rise to myth. JFK, Clinton and Obama were horrifyingly corrupt in their personal lives and their political associations. Yet they were able to wear a glamor of youthful idealism and promise a new and better era convincingly enough for large numbers of people in America and across the world to believe them. And believe in them.
With the passing of time, that glamor fades. It winks out and it becomes hard to even understand the appeal. Seen across the march of time, they seem tired and insincere. Matchstick men waiting for the night to come. Moths drawn to the flame of fame. Con men messiahs performing for an audience that they fear is always on the verge of getting bored with their tricks. And so they juggle more balls, recite more speeches and draw more imaginary cloaks across their naked bodies, hoping to delay that final terrible moment when even a child will know enough to cry out, "The emperor is naked."
JFK never witnessed that moment come in his lifetime. The grave and the myths that haloed over his resting place kept some of it at bay. But even in life, he had to know that moment was coming. With death, LBJ implemented his policies with the savvy streak of a born dealmaker, but without the charm. JFK went down in history as the idealistic martyr and LBJ as the ugly car salesman, the man who finally gave liberals what they wanted, and nearly torched the country doing it.
And it is the martyred idealists that liberals love to remember. That is why Obama will always be a hero to them, a martyr not to a bullet, but to his moral superiority to the American peasant who shops at Wal-Mart and clings to his shotgun and his bible. "He was too good for us", is the myth that liberals have already drawn like a long white cloak over the second fall of Camelot. What they really mean is, "He was too good for them."
The blame will fall on Rahm or Biden, on Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner, and all the other wonks, nerds, yes men and hit men, the LBJ's around Obama who actually did all the dirty work of policymaking, but weren't nearly as good at inspiring liberal college students to feel like they could do anything-- even with a Philosophy major. Of course a good deal of the blame will also fall on the Republicans. The ignorant and superstitious lot, rallying the peasants to torch Frankenstein's tower. And whose fault was it really, that behind that easy smile, the good doctor had given his Monster in Chief, a criminal's brain.
Time marches on and men such as these are merely the avatars of policies. It is easier to sell America on a man, than on a policy. Especially when the policies are written up in bills thousands of pages long that no one can actually read. It is easier to put forward a man, to cozen the public with yet another progressive messiah, another fresh face of socialism to paste over the moldy halls of bureaucracy behind his policies. And both parties need their image men. Their political avatars.
For Democrats, the messiah is the college student frozen in time, idealistic without being judgmental, cool and self-aware enough to be a peer, but vulnerable enough to echo their inner child. He enjoys traveling to foreign countries and reading all the right books. He is pretentiously unpretentious and sophomorically inspirational. He speaks so well that no one notices, that he knows not what he speaks of. This is the mold from which JFK, Clinton and Obama were cast.
On the Republican side, he is a cowboy, or looks and sounds like one anyway. He's outdoorsy, folksy and more at home on a ranch, than in the White House. It may all be theater, but it's usually good theater. The cowboy who speaks imperfectly but sincerely, who is rough but honest, who values the open frontier, more than the rulebook, who is reluctant to fight but knows when to reach for a rifle, and how to use it-- that is the mold of a Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or a Sarah Palin.
Camelot was a myth, because it was carried on by people who needed that myth. Who needed to understand why they had failed, and couldn't accept that it was the policies that had failed. It was easier to believe that the dream had been murdered, then that the dream was never alive at all. Simpler to turn on America, than to admit defeat. To embody a myth in a man is a dangerous thing. It is a sign of low regard for both man and myth.
The first Camelot is dead now. The liberals who once used to ask each other where they were when they heard that JFK died are letting this latest anniversary pass with little notice. The myth of JFK had since been eclipsed by the myth of Obama. It fulfilled its purpose in elevating him. And now the myth has been discarded. And it was the myth that they had always cared about, not the man. JFK knew that and it dug at him. Clinton knew it and reveled in it. Obama hides behind the myth as protective coloration. But the myth is being ripped away. You can fool all of the people some of the time, but never all of the time. The One is dead, long live the One.