George Washington, 1797. Public Domain
Our Public Broadcasting System is re-running a series on recent American presidents, first aired in 2013. I missed it then, but caught the second episode of “Kennedy” last night (you can watch the entire program here).
The show was excellent. It outlined several glaring failures of the Kennedy administration: the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion; JFK’s failure to back the emerging civil rights movement; starting us down the slippery slope in Vietnam through mistaking a nationalist revolution for a global communist conspiracy.
Successes included staring down Khrushchev in the high-stakes Cuban missile crisis, and motivating the nation to put a man on the moon, which led directly to the high tech boom, and the laptop or smartphone on which you are reading this post.
Successes and failures aside, the most striking thing I noticed in watching “Kennedy” was that he looked and acted presidential in a way that current presidents do not! Somewhere along the way, the stature and dignity of the office has been diminished.
It’s not that the presidents of my youth were exemplary human beings: Kennedy and Johnson were notorious philanderers, and Nixon was an angry alcoholic, who sometimes gave orders to “bomb the shit” out of countries that annoyed him (see Drinking in America). It’s silly to imagine that those who aspire to the office have changed that much in 50 years. It’s rather that the regard we hold for office has diminished.
True, some people exude charisma, or in Johnson’s case, power. It’s also true that an aura often aura celebrities who die young – Kennedy, Marylin, Elvis, Princess Di, and Prince.
I’m tempted to quote what mythologists like Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly have said about the deflation of the archetypes of king and queen, but I think the answer is far simpler, staring us in the face, in our voracious need to pull presidents down to our level, and their willingness to cooperate.
At the start of the primary season, this year’s crop of contenders gathered in mass for the Iowa State Fair, and one reporter detailed which candidates were truly “just folks,” as opposed to wannabe’s, based on whether or not they knew how to eat ribs.
The cover story on the August 1 issue of Time was, “In Search of Hillary?” What exactly are we searching for? “Likes poetry, puppies and moonlight walks on the beach?”
I remember Cokie Roberts describing a meeting where Lyndon Johnson got angry and chewed someone out. “It took five years off my life,” she said, while noting that recent presidents, wielding the same power, do not command anywhere near that respect. It’s hard to imagine LBJ on Saturday Night Live or with Stephen Colbert, and during this election year especially, I’m not sure that trade of respect for laughter and buddy vibes has been a good deal for anyone.
Whether the loss of respect moves top-down, or bottom-up, or both, when presidential debates begin to look like the Jerry Springer show, and the rest of us behave accordingly, we’re in a world of trouble!
War reporter, Sebastian Junger, author of, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, outlined one consequence for us in a PBS interview.
A war reporter, Junger was with troops during “hellish deployments,” but noted that some of the soldiers did not want to go home. Junger says that for most of our history, we humans have lived and thrived most in tribes or clans and, “The real an ancient meaning of tribe is the community that you live in that you share resources with that you would risk your life to defend.”
Only at war did many of the young men that Junger met experience this kind of connection. The lack of it, in our culture, is deadly in his opinion. Looking at our current election season, Junger says we look like opposing tribes, that hold each other in contempt.
“No soldier in a trench in a platoon in combat would have contempt for their trench mate. They might not like them. They disagree with them, but you don’t have contempt for someone that your life depends on. And that’s what we’re falling into in the political dialogue in this country. And in my opinion, that is more dangerous to this country than ISIS is, I mean literally like more of a threat to our nation.”
“I wish I had a tribe,” Junger says, “But we don’t. We just don’t. That’s the problem. That’s why our depression rate, our suicide rate, all that stuff is through the roof. That’s the tragedy of modern society.”
I remember watching Kennedy on TV as a kid. I remember walking to grade school in 1962, past a neighbor who was digging a bomb shelter. I remember “duck and cover” hydrogen bomb drills, which we all knew were ludicrous even then. But through all the fear, what I really remember, was growing up in a neighborhood, in “one nation” as we said during the pledge of allegiance.
I don’t know anyone who lives in a neighborhood or one nation anymore. Perhaps that realization is what makes this election so sad – an election like this couldn’t happen if values like “community,” and “nation,” to say nothing of “tribe,” weren’t so completely fractured.
I have some notions of what happened, but that is for another post. And as they say, we cannot even begin to imagine solutions for a problem until we admit that it exists and what it costs.