What Has Happened to Us?

Here is a video of former President Dwight Eisenhower’s reaction to the assassination of John Kennedy. 

As I watched this video I was suddenly afflicted with a deep sadness that very little of what Eisenhower says of the U.S. in the early 1960’s would apply today.  This has nothing to do with the deep conservatism of the era — in fact, Kennedy, who was actually quite conservative himself, was at the time considered fresh and liberal as opposed to his staid and stodgy predecessor Eisenhower.  No, it has more to do with the unchecked commercialization that has cheapened our culture.  Everyone has something to gain financially from selling out everyone else, and corrosive divisiveness has developed as a result. 

In fact, we are now so divided that the murder of a President of either party nowadays would bring wild joy to at least some in the opposition.  (And I have to add here that vituperatively opposed as I am to what is going on in the Republican party, the killing of a Republican would not make me happy.)

This is not quite new, but it is recent.  I recall hearing reports in 1981, after Ronald Reagan was shot, that schoolkids were laughing and saying, “cool!”  And I remember it was not that way in 1963.  I had been pulled out of school that day to go to the airport to see some relatives off; they were moving to another state.  We heard about the assassination while in the airport.  A modishly dressed young woman came staggering up to my parents, crying that Kennedy had been shot.  After that, we were all staggered and haunted for weeks, months, and years.  I always remember this in stark contrast to the schoolkids’ reactions to the Reagan attack.  But it wasn’t the kids’ fault, it was the era they were being raised in.

Yes humans are animals, but we have the ability to rise above base behavior.  Or rather, we once had.  Note, in spite of occasional verbal stumbling, Eisenhower’s measured tones and his obvious knowledge of history…and his offer to help if needed.  Can you imagine what would happen if a former President offered to step in and help in such a crisis today?  Every verbal misstep would be magnified and dissected, and ultimately the shouts of dismay from the opposition would drown him out.  “The American people don’t want you!!!”  “Who do you think you ARE!”  “He’s a Nazi dictator!”  And other such garbage.  It would only be worse if the ex-President stepped in with gentle, authoritative, soothing tones and an obvious knowledge of history.  I mean, crap — he’s EDUCATED.  No good!

No, I’m afraid the ones who would get the attention in such a situation now would be the wingnut(s) saying the most outrageously nasty things about the deceased to the sound of hysterical applause and even laughter.

This is one Thanksgiving where there is not much to give thanks for, but much to mourn.  Eisenhower is not merely spinning pretty words here; a lot of what he says on this video was true of the U.S. that I grew up in.  Yes, we hated each other’s politics in the old days.   And as Eisenhower points out in the video, it was often as ugly, at least on the surface, as it is now;  the caustic Truman/Eisenhower-era “anti-Communist” campaign of the sodden Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy comes to mind (any of this sound familiar?).  McCarthy was a drunk who apparently was seeing pinkos instead of pink elephants.  He wasted lots of time and money on various investigations of this and that, and largely came up with nothing.  But he did manage to destroy lives along the way.

As an aside, who knows why the frankly insane Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann is now trying to emulate him, except for the fact that she’s…well…nuts.  It will be a measure of how far we’ve come — if we have at all — to watch her success or failure.

Whatever the circumstances of the present, there was a bond between us all that was broken on November 22, 1963 and remains broken to this day.  Watch the video and weep. 

And now back to my irregularly scheduled blogging…

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