I was 17 when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, halfway through my senior year of high school, part of a generation that had grown up with the fear of nuclear annihilation as a staple of our childhoods, taught in schools to "duck and cover," frightened on weekends by pulpy movies featuring cities terrorized by radioactive mutant lizards or ants vastly enlarged by the effects of open air nuclear testing. Those of us with a rebellious strain were repelled by the conformity we saw, weary of the stewardship of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a kindly president who, nonetheless, reminded most of us of our preachers, our high school principals, or our grandfathers.
So, on the day Kennedy was inaugurated, I saw a man young enough to perhaps remember what it had been like to be young. I was stirred by the idealistic words he spoke that day, his vision of my country, his focus on a better future. He was the first president to invite a poet to speak at his inaugural, and the poet he chose was a great one. To a skinny high school kid, it seemed like a door was opening on something new, something hopeful, something exciting, something far better.
Though my generation would suffer at least its portion of disappointment and disillusionment, the spirit JFK instilled in so many of us never entirely went away.
And though my generation would suffer at least its portion of disappointment and disillusionment, the spirit JFK instilled in so many of us never entirely went away. Lots of us went into the Peace Corps, or sought work in fields more associated with making a contribution than making a bundle. Enrollment in liberal arts or humanities courses was fashionable among college kids, and some of the best of us became freedom riders in the deep south, boarding buses to face very real dangers in the deep south.
When Kennedy had his brains splattered on the streets of Dallas, you could feel the change, could feel a dream slipping away. And if some of that dream was cabled to our youthful idealism, if there was less appealing sides to Kennedy than the romance of Camelot, it was good to be young when Kennedy was in the Oval Office, nonetheless. For some of us, JFk set a template, a standard, a sense of style, elegance, and respect for liberalism that has been largely on the down low damn near ever since he died, since that schizophrenic decade that produced the often ditzy dreams of peace and brotherhood and the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Kennedy's baby brother, Bobby, not to mention a whole lot of Vietnamese, north and south, and tens of thousands of American servicemen and women.
Much was lost in that decade, and to this old relic of those times, most of what was lost was never regained.
But I'm too old now to whine about that as so many of my generation have done before me. At this point, what's done is done, from Viet Nam, Nixon, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, the Reagan de-volution that undermined the middle class and began the redistribution of wealth upward, began to dismantling of unions, created the climate for Fox "News," eliminated the Fairness doctrine, purged the mental health system, bad or inadequate as it may have been, and spawned a wandering army of homeless people that has grown exponentially since then as wealth was redistributed to ever fewer at the stop of the heap and most everyone else waited for some of it to trickle down on us.
We started this new century led by a guy who was a long haul from the dignity, character, and sense of history John Kennedy had brought to the office, a ultra-privileged plutocrat's son who hid out and then went AWOL from the Texas National Guard which allowed him to survive his generation's war long enough to give us another Viet Nam decades later when he and his draft evading vice president attacked Iraq, a nation that posed no threat, had done us no harm. The war in Iraq didn't cost as many American lives as the 58,000 lost in Viet Nam, but it is the longest running war in American history, not counting the one still going on in Afghanistan, two unfunded conflicts that have been fought by an all-volunteer army with all costs on the cuff, and billions in expenses unaccounted for, pallets of hundred dollar bills having just disappeared, and untold millions funneled to "defense" contractors, arms merchants, and outfits like Cheney's Halliburton, often for goods that weren't delivered, work that was never done, not needed, or so sub-standard as to be worse than useless.
Kids who graduated from high school the year of George W. Bush's first inaugural were coming of age with a graceless doofus in the Oval Office, a guy who had been an alcoholic n'er do well until he was approaching 40, a party guy who slid into and through the two top schools where room was always reserved for members of his class, and where a gentleman's C was more than good enough to ensure a well-connected future. Though Bush came from the same class as Kennedy had, he didn't bring much class to the nation's highest office, none of the eloquence or wit Kennedy had brought to the presidency, and certainly no poetry, either at the inaugural or in the governing.With Dick Cheney at his side, and with Wall Streeters, overnight tech billionaires, oligarchs, plutocrats, gold-plated rap stars, and platinum plated sports "heroes" as cultural role models, the lessons for kids who graduated as the century began was that if you ain't rich, you ain't shit, not in this America. If you sought jobs in social work, or public service, or teaching, you were just foolish, a loser, or a parasite who just sought a cushy job paid by hard-working taxpayers, most of whom, we were commonly told wanted to shrink government and make it even smaller than Ronald Reagan had ever dreamt it could be. Unless you were some dream libtard, you better get that MBA and get on the gravy train. This was America, and there was money to be made for those with the entrepreneurial spirit. This was America, not France, where the problem was that they had no word for "entrepreneur." Or so Dubya told us.
Those kids who were graduating in 2001 were just months away from a future that would be transformed by the terror attacks on the World Trade Center. They would be told lies that took us to war, some of them would lose friends in that war, others would suffer horrific injuries, blasted by IEDs while riding in unarmored Humvees because, as Rumsfeld said, "you don't go to war with the army you want; you go to war with the army you have." The bar for youthful disillusionment had slipped rather badly since my generation had seen a higher standard set for American leadership, battered by Johnson's inability to extract us from Viet Nam, Nixon's crookedness, Ford's bumbling, Reagan's affable mediocrity and commitment to serving the rich, George H.W. Bush's undistinguished term with Dan Quayle, a VP who paved the way for America's willingness to accept ever dumber people in our highest offices. Then there was Clinton, with his reckless sexual dalliances and his rightward redefinition of the Democratic Party. By the time we got to George W. Bush, few seemed to give much of a damn that we had a less-than-bright president who said things like "Few ask the question, is our children learning?" or "You teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test," or "I just want you to know that when we talk about war we're really talking about peace."
The kids who graduated when Bush was inaugurated are pushing 40 now. Lots of them voted for Trump, as did an army of addled and angry old farts who graduated back in my era, those who came back from Viet Nam feeling forsaken by their nation, or those who may have been Young Republicans who voted for Goldwater in '64, or Reagan in '80. Or they just might have been among those largely apolitical and disengaged Americans who harbored more and more resentments as they grew old, resentments explained by Rush Limbaugh or other college dropouts who increasingly dominated our media.
Bush and Cheney and Rummy had lowered expectations, bringing down the dignity and decency of American leaders another big notch, installed in the White House with help from his brother, Jeb, the Governor of Florida, a hinky vote count there that allowed Scalia's Supreme Court to anoint a Republican regime that would turn out to be a rolling eight-year disaster. While Dubya was in charge, those kids born when he was inaugurated were learning to walk and tie their shoes, they were living in a nation heading toward an economic collapse, one that hit when they were in 4th or 5th grade, stripping their parents' homes of hard-earned equity.
Then, for the eight years that followed, they saw implacable obstructionism from Republicans who made it their first priority to see that Barack Obama had a failed presidency. Those kids saw overt and/or thinly-veiled racism ever more commonly expressed by politicians and by the yahoos who showed up at Tea Party gatherings. Or, if they weren't paying attention, they absorbed it through their pores as part of the zeitgeist that was part of the air they were breathing, with the persistent fear of terrorism thrown into the mix, and the receding background noise of wars still going on in two far distant nations in the Middle East. They heard the word "Benghazi" incessantly, though few of them had a clue of how to find that place on the map, or even knew that it was a place, or why it mattered much except that it seemed to have something to do with Hillary Clinton screwing up in some vague way.
And though they were steaming toward adolescence with a decent man in the White House, a loving husband and father who served with public dignity and grace, much as JFK had done, the undercurrent of hatred was fierce, the divisions in the country growing, with fascists pointing high-powered rifles at federal agents with impunity, and occupying (and trashing) a wildlife sanctuary in an anti-government pout a clot of them had staged up in Oregon. Despite the death threats, the racism, the right wing obstruction, "No Drama Obama" did much to repair what Bush and Cheney had left broken, averting a global economic meltdown, saving the American auto industry, tracking down and killing the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and regaining respect for the United States throughout the world.
Still, thanks to the propaganda ministry of Breitbart, Fox "News," and talk radio, the division had grown, the lines had hardened.
Twenty-first century kids who had grown up through all of that graduated from high school a hundred or so days out from Donald J. Trump's inauguration, deep into the morass of chaos Trump and his tweeting had engendered. Trump's inaugural was an event dominated by a speech written at the direction of two certifiably ghastly human beings, Steve Bannon and Steven Miller, a speech that presented a dystopian vision of the United States of America, a place of "carnage" on the streets that resembled the violent video games these soon-to-graduate kids had grown up on, a country much like the one they'd seen in all those comic book movies where the world depicted as a Manichean nightmare, simplistically divided into super villains and super heroes, battling it out against a backdrop of urban decay.
Trump cast himself as the super hero, the only one who could save us, who could make America great again, who could fight, almost single handedly, the tide of illegal aliens, the forces of ISIS, the lying American media he portrayed as "the enemy of the people," and the assorted "losers" who criticized him, from European heads of state to media celebs. The man who told us that no one had more respect for women than he did had also been heard bragging about grabbing strange women by the pussy, had seemed obsessed with their blood, and had a rather long history as a swinish voyeur and sexual predator who used his wealth and celebrity to get laid by women who would have shunned him had he not been so favored.
So I think of those kids who graduated a month or so ago, those kids so bereft of the kind of idealism kids my age were exposed to back in the long advent of the 1960s, when Kennedy asked us to "ask not what America can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
A few lines earlier, in that same speech, Kennedy had rallied the nation, saying " The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."
Much of that inaugural speech is contextually anchored in the Cold War and in a vision of the United States that would be put to more than a few nefarious uses, of course, but it still stands in stark contrast to the bleak blather Donald J. Trump offered to high school graduates and the rest of us back in January of this year.
And though Americans have notoriously short memories, few of us need reminders of the madness we've seen unfold since then, the blizzard of "executive orders," the bird-brained tweeting from the POTUS, the firings of Comey, Yates, etc., the ever-mounting record of lies from Trump and his people about Russians, the embarrassment of Trump's behavior on the world stage--dancing with Saudis, alienating NATO allies, withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Accords, praising Putin while undermining confidence in American intelligence agencies, and undercutting faith in the press, and in the integrity of our elections.
How do kids who just graduated as this hot summer was about to begin gather the necessary faith in our institutions, our heritage, our national identity to face the truly overwhelming challenges they face? What have Trump, Pence, McConnell, Ryan, Rand, McCain, Chaffetz, Gowdy, or the jackal-pack or right wingers given them that would inspire the will and the idealism they will surely need.
I can't think of a damned thing.
As an old man now, one who was about to come of age when Kennedy offered a "can do" New Englander's faith in what a united people could do, I don't envy them being young in these times.
Because what is being inaugurated when we install these leaders is not just a president, but a national identity. For the kids who graduated this year, that identity is now embodied in a man without a hint of character, without a moral compas, little knowledge of or interest in history or statecraft, and not the slightest regard for honest or truth. Even his love of country is now in question, with no sense of duty to pay his fair share of taxes, and attitudes clearly suggesting that like so many of the other international billionaires, his only real allegiance seems to be to his coeval of global parasites, from Russia to Riyadh.
Kennedy entered office as the author of a best-selling book called Profiles in Courage, a series of portraits of American historical figures who had bucked prevailing winds to stand on principle. Donald Trump also "wrote" a book, The Art of the Deal, which was all about himself, and about an avowed absence of principles.
Kennedy appealed to youthful idealism, Trump to the most jaded cynicism. Kennedy ran as the first Catholic to seek the presidency, Trump as the darling of evangelicals who often claimed that God had sent him. Those faux Christians were unbothered by their anointed savior's lack of familiarity with the Bible, the book he said edged out The Art of the Deal as his favorite book. Kennedy had served heroically during World War II, Trump has ducked out of service in Viet Nam, with a note from a doctor claiming "bone spurs" that did impede his participation in sports, then or in his future.
It seems from this perspective that Kennedy took office at the apex of American power, when faith in science, in education, in our bedrock principles were about to reach their peak. It's been a long and determined slide since then, bringing us to this time, these circumstances, this surreal set of characters occupying the White House and operating far too many levers of power with far too little regard for the common good or the future of our imperiled planetary home.
Or so it seems to this high school graduate, class of '61 as he offers forlorn hope and sincerest best wishes to the graduates of this dark and dismal year in the history of our country.