Most folks love autumn for its colorful foliage, but I love fall as much for the deep blue skies it brings. The sky is blue all year, of course…but in autumn it looks bluer. On Sunday, J and I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston, and as we approached the I.M.-Pei-designed building on foot, I remarked how aesthetically appropriate it seemed to view a stark white building arching angularly into a solid block of blue.
Neither J nor I had been born when JFK was assassinated in 1963; neither one of us was even a proverbial sparkle in our respective daddy’s eye. Still, growing up Catholic in middle America, we both were raised in the mythic aftermath of All Things Kennedy. In my family at least, Jackie Kennedy (and later Jackie O) was considered by my mother as the quintessential feminine ideal, a woman who was simultaneously glamorous, maternal, devoted, and cultured. JFK, for his part, was held up as a masculine ideal: a President who was youthful, virile, and idealistic, the way America and Americans should be.
Later revelations about Kennedy’s marital infidelities and sometimes-shady politics did little to diminish the power of his myth. Convinced that John and Jackie really were as perfect as the image of Camelot would have us believe, my parents largely ignored evidence to the contrary. When my parents stopped voting after Ted Kennedy’s mishap at Chappaquiddick, the brunt of their blame was placed on the presumably hypocritical priests who had instructed their parishioners from the pulpit to vote for those Kennedy boys. Politics, my parents suggested, was too dirty a business to mix with religion, and surely all politicians are scoundrels. But JFK, conveniently dead, somehow escaped my parents’ ire. Proof that my mother, at least, still adores JFK came years ago when I visited Washington, DC for the first time and my mom wanted to know only two things. Had I gone to see the Vietnam Memorial, and had I visited JFK’s grave at Arlington Cemetery?
During the 2000 Presidential primary when I was teaching at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH, several of my students were among the standing-room-only crowd that gathered to hear an on-campus campaign speech by Senator John McCain. Surprised that one of my more dry and cynical students had attended a stump speech, I asked her if she was a McCain supporter, registered Republican, or even intended to vote. “No,” she replied. “I’m not really into politics. But I admire McCain because unlike the other candidates, he really seems to stand for something.”
I’m sure every Presidential hopeful would have us believe that they stand for something…but in my student’s eyes, McCain was the only candidate in the 2000 election whose personal history was powerful enough to carry the hype of myth. “Let’s face it,” my student astutely observed. “Presidents are basically administrators. They oversee the government, but their real power is inspirational. Kids today are cynical about politics because none of our administrators is inspiring. If we had a leader who really believed in something, we’d believe in him, too.”
Of the many things I’ve learned from students over the years, this one statement from one student at Saint Anselm College has probably rung the truest. Kids today are cynical about politics, and it’s largely because they (like my parents) see the hypocrisy of it all. But the fact that a figure such as the late John Paul II was widely adored by teenagers–even while he took unpopular stands against contraception, homosexuality, and other issues of interest to young people–suggests that teens are looking for heroes. “Teenagers are very idealistic if you give them something to be idealistic about,” that student of mine explained. “If a person like JFK ran today–you know, with all his ‘ask what you can do for your country’ stuff–college kids would vote for him.” My student seemed entirely convinced of this, and her conviction, like the hopeful idealism of a youthful candidate, was contagious.
And so on Sunday, it seemed entirely appropriate to contemplate JFK, Jackie, and the myth of Camelot inside a pristinely white building set like a gem before an ocean of blue. When it comes to youthful idealism and all-American potential, the sea, sky, and a certain dead President all seemed to suggest “the sky’s the limit.”