For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed…– Shakespeare, from “King Richard II”
Somalilandsun – To be born into a kingdom mourning its slain king is to come alive in a time and place where home is irrevocably broken, forevermore contextualized as something that used to be so much better, in so many entangled and intangible ways, that it can never possibly be that good again.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not royalty, and Camelot is only a romantic metaphor for his presidency. Still, having been born seven months after that brutal day Dallas and coming of age in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I can say with certainty I am not the only member of my generation who grew up with a deep-seated sense of something missing, of something having been stolen from the United States as a nation and its citizens as a people, both individually and collectively, that day the Kennedy presidency ended in an explosion of gunfire on the streets of Dallas.
Today, 50 years after the fatal shots that changed the fate of the world on Nov. 22, 1963, I watch old footage, some of it in black and white, some in glorious Technicolor, some digitized and colorized almost to the point of modernity, and in every instance Kennedy steps out of the past and into the here and now, doing what he did so well more than half a century ago. He tells us the torch has been passed; he speaks triumphantly in Berlin; he shares his vision for the world to come in a June 16, 1963, speech at American University. “I am talking about genuine peace,” he says, “the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living…not merely peace in our time, but peace in all time.”
His charisma lives again, if only in that place where dreams die young and the sweet sorrow for what can never be replaces the exuberant expectation for something grand and glorious, something bigger than ourselves, something of God and country aligned irrevocably with might and right and the divine hand that guides righteous nations and instills wisdom and virtue into the hearts of upstanding citizens. For the barest sliver of a moment, as I focus my eyes on events preserved on film before I was born, what is and what will never be seem to be converging to deliver a fresh “tomorrow” worthy of the name.
But it’s all a phantom world, a quicksilver dream filled with preposterous absurdities like benevolent kings, majestic queens, noble knights, fire-breathing dragons and sacred quests for liberty and justice for all. Kennedy has been dead for 50 years now, and tomorrow it will be 50 years and a day. There will be time for dreaming again later, when the past isn’t as crowded with lonely souls peering into yesteryear, hoping for a rejuvenating glimpse of what it is they’re missing but can’t quite identify in the world they find themsleves in today.
Archetypal patterns of the tragic hero, of ambitious journeys ending in loss and bereavement, will continue to rise and recede within tides of the collective unconscious, some made manifest in the physical realm, others the stuff of books and movies and art. Fifty years ago today, an infinite number of worlds ended and an infinite number of worlds began. And so it is in every day, every hour and every moment, with or without the golden-haired president and his young, beautiful American family. Henry James said it best: “We work in the dark, we do what we can…”
In the final analysis, we look back so that we can keep going. A lot of people have been looking back at the Kennedy years this week, touched by a faint echo of the high-minded purpose so vigorously embodied by the fallen king. May we all take something of that spirit with us as we move forward, asking not what our country can do for us, but what we can do to help restore the hope that a better future is, in fact, still possible for our country.