I recall only a sense of numbness during the long walk back to the main campus in New Haven, Connecticut from an outlying athletic field where the Yale-Harvard freshman football game had been going on that Friday. It had been eerily quiet in the stands for 30 minutes or so before the final announcement, with small transistor radios pressed to the heads of many as events unfolded in Dallas. Then, but for a random police siren with no apparent purpose, there was mostly silence as people walked slowly away.
1963 was a dramatically different time in the perception of the general public about what government could, or should, do. I had gone to Yale imbued with the dynamic challenge of the inaugural speech in January of 1961 – “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I envisioned a potential State Department career, so I loaded up with Russian language, political science, and Russian and Eastern European history in my freshman year. It was a real and palpable sense of mission experienced by many of us in that period that I’ve never quite seen again among similar age groups in the aftermath of presidential elections, even Barack Obama’s.
I hope that in the not distant future a large cohort of 17 and 18 year-olds will get to experience the same exhilarating inspiration and sense of purpose about the governance of our country that I felt for too brief a time over fifty years ago.
In hindsight, and with all we now know about John Kennedy’s presidency behind the scenes, it’s perhaps easy to deride the level of enthusiasm and inspiration for change and service to country that a huge number of 17 and 18 year-olds had at the time. But for me, and I think many, November 22, 1963 was – stealing from Don McLean’s American Pie – the “day the political music died.” With the loss of what the Kennedy “magic” had inspired, I lost the drive sometime later in my freshman year, and wandered off into an American history major, and then to law school with no particular purpose in mind. I’ve been a political junkie since I was 11, and while still engaged in politics for fifty years following JFK’s death, it’s never felt the same.
Surfing the internet, you can find quite a number of so-called “alternative histories” – books and articles by historians and political analysts playing out what might have been the course of American history if Kennedy had not been assassinated. Most of these focus on what would have happened with Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the rise of the counterculture, etc., with differing conclusions. I have a longer view about how JFK’s death, in my view, likely affected the next generations right up to the current era. Some of those who have speculated about the future, had President Kennedy not died, haven’t even lived through the entire period, as I have. Since I’m pretty well-read on Vietnam and our history from the mid-60’s through the 70’s, I’ll take my shot.
Many think that because Kennedy was, nominally, a “hawk” in the early period of our Vietnam intervention, he would have continued to engage our country in that misadventure — that we would have experienced involvement on a scale not much different than what occurred under President Johnson, since the same so-called “best and the brightest” of the Kennedy administration would still have been forming policy. I conclude differently. One core belief of Kennedy’s was that American troops would not be fighting on the ground, contrary to the sabre rattling plans of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. JFK’s people had essentially faced the Chiefs down in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when they were pounding the table for invasion and nuclear strikes. And I think with Kennedy controlling Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in a way Johnson really couldn’t, with his prior experience holding back the Chiefs, and with his ability to evolve in his thinking on critical matters, we would have de-escalated our involvement in Vietnam in his second term. (Like Johnson did, JFK would have easily swamped Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election.) I believe as the situation in Vietnam eroded, Kennedy would have sided with the opinion of those in his kitchen cabinet vigorously counseling against increasing American troops on the ground, and that this would have happened well before Walter Cronkite’s famous pronouncement in March of 1968, after seeing Vietnam first hand, that the best we could achieve there was a stalemate, faced with an unwinnable war.
So what’s the point of going through the above “alternative history?” Without the nation being mired in Vietnam in 1968, without an incumbent president consequently withdrawing from another term, and without the disarray of the Democrats due to all of the above, Richard Nixon would not likely have made his comeback and become president. If no Nixon, then no Watergate, and no resulting miasma created by the implosion of the executive branch, the final degradation of which being President Ford’s unconditional pardon of Nixon for his “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
By this point in the mid 70’s, the American public was pretty exhausted by the seeming incompetence and venality of its government and the deceits of the Vietnam debacle then coming to light, and had become largely cynical about what the Beltway-driven federal government could do. A fairly feckless administration under President Carter — a man of enormous intellect but who would not likely have risen to national prominence as a viable “outside the Beltway” candidate if the table had not been set by the prior eight years — did not help.
During the 70’s, as Watergate dragged the national psyche into the dumpster and we watched the final collapse of Saigon, as the last helos lifted off the U.S. embassy, there was a sense we’d lost our “mojo,” our “toughest kid on the block” status. In this environment arose a hardened right wing arguing, as many still do, that we failed the troops by not letting them “win the war,” and that, overall, government was the problem, not the solution to any problems. Of course, the concept of the Vietnam conflict being winnable was, and always has been, an absurdity under the lens of cogent military and historical analysis, but this thesis became a driving force in getting the U.S. military back to a supposed position of supremacy in subsequent years, and the consequential hemorrhaging of the national budget. More importantly, the “we” that government had traditionally been seen as – spearheading huge national projects – was increasingly replaced in societal hierarchy by the “I” of the supposedly heroic, self-made man or woman, whose success was all their own and which benefitted society more than any collective effort of the people.
Fifty years ago there was consensus among even the most diametrically opposed politicians from opposing political parties that a fully functioning government was an absolute requirement for the country and our democratic processes.
Cue the rise of Reagan, and Reaganism, which offered the comfort of a new feel-good, Hollywood-like “Morning in America” with the iconography of the mythical cowboy of the American west leading us out of our national torpor. As Reagan intoned: “The eight scariest words you’ll ever hear are: ‘I’m the government and I’m here to help’.” The celebration of the “I”, and the demotion of “we the people” begins with Reagan, as does the inculcation in at least a generation of younger Americans the precept that government can’t, and shouldn’t, interfere with the unfettered functioning of the “free market” (except for the gargantuan outlay for national defense). The political philosophy Reagan, his staff and enablers embraced and the his administration’s policies jump-started the serious erosion of government controls on business and industry, the rampant growth of corporatism and financialization of the economy, and the dismantling of the middle class that continues today. “Greed was good,” it was encouraged by policy, and made many of the “I”s rich beyond comprehension, as they produced nothing but their own wealth.
Economists date the stagnation of the middle class beginning about the time of Reagan, when wages for working Americans flattened and are today barely above where they were then, in constant dollars. Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 emboldened a broad attack on organized labor that has continued for over thirty years. The decline of the middle class is directly attributable to the decline of organized labor, its former bulwark, now down to 8-9% of the workforce from well over 30% when I began my practice of workers’ compensation in 1977. The spread of “right to work” laws (for lower wages) has continued since the Reagan years. And over the last thirty years wealth has become concentrated in a small sector of the population to an extent not seen since the era of the Robber Barons.
Would all of this have happened if the country had not gone through the post-JFK assassination turmoil? Perhaps some of it was inevitable. But I think the post-Kennedy era demonization of the role of government in a democracy with a complex market economy has had a far more profound effect on where we find ourselves today than would have happened, absent the assassination of 1963 and its aftermath.
And what has all of that bred in today’s politics? The rise of “leaders” on the fringes of the far right so dedicated to the proposition that government is trampling freedoms secured by the founding fathers that they will ensure it doesn’t work by any means necessary. With galactic ignorance of our history, and spewing scripted sound bites of misinformation on any topic, they come to Washington not to govern but to dismantle government. But while the extremes they advocate are largely unimaginable even by their political forbearers on the right, their roots are squarely in the anti-government philosophy that erupted on such a wide scale three decades ago.
Fifty years ago there was consensus among even the most diametrically opposed politicians from opposing political parties that a fully functioning government was an absolute requirement for the country and our democratic processes. The arguments were principally about which processes, priorities and methodologies to be used, not whether the government was going to run. Arguments, debates, and analysis of government policies and process were largely substantive and advocated by legislators who mostly knew what they were talking about, not spouting talking points fed to them by media spinmeisters.
Would we still have some semblance of that today with a different fifty-year history after 1963? You decide. I’ve personally come to believe our history, and where we find ourselves in 2013, would be different – and better. I hope that in the not distant future a large cohort of 17 and 18 year-olds will get to experience the same exhilarating inspiration and sense of purpose about the governance of our country that I felt for too brief a time over fifty years ago.