Political analysis is one of the most developed fields of prediction. This is not to say the pundits get it right; their records are hit-and-miss. But their machinery, involving grave pundits saddled to complex mathematical machinery with 3-D visualizations, captivates.
Sometimes predictive insight comes from an initial question that has no direct connection with the eventual question. Since political pundits seem to have so much trouble competing with exit polls, perhaps a question that opens up the invisible zeitgeist would be a fruitful alternative to the pundit’s complexity and specificity. What form could the question take? For anyone with a partisan political outlook, it’s a real mind stretcher. To limber up, let’s review the brief years in which modern America was born. We segue with a general discussion of heroism in presidential elections.
In presidential races, heroes have been conspicuously absent, except for the occasional war hero, whose presidency is typically undistinguished or with signs of incompetence. The traits of the hero are apparently incompatible with those of the successful politico, which involve active trading of one’s principles for the Greater Good of the moment. And yet if a president, in the process of being morally debauched, manages to do some good that outlasts his term, history grants him the hero’s mantle.
If this election, a candidate manages victory with a platform of complete negativity, as in “no more this…and no more that”, it will be a first. There is always some version of “a chicken in every pot”, which Herbert Hoover actually recycled from Henry IV of France. Jeb Bush’s version is “4% growth”(annual.) After election, as if to wash away the stains of the campaign, a president seems bound to try to create a myth that will outlast his administration. JFK’s audacity was not to promise, but to demand. His second demand was Man on the Moon. Lest it seem frivolous, the program catalyzed the rest of the technological 20th century, including the computer you are this moment using. But my favorite demand is actually his first, the exhortation of his inaugural speech, written by Ted Sorensen. Don’t make me spoil the invocation of an American Caesar. Watch his renewed demand for the service and sacrifice to the principle of American Exceptionalism.
The United States of 1963 was a cruel place, where racial and cultural discrimination, police and civil brutality, and demands for cultural conformity were much different from today. Kennedy’s oration was directed at the enfranchised electorate. The disenfranchised had the Civil Rights Movement. In historical judgment of a president, we must take measure of political background of the times. Watch Martin Luther King‘s “I have a dream” , the visible pinnacle of the organized Civil Rights Movement that started gaining steam on December 1, 1955, with the arrest of Rosa Parks. Three months after MLK’s speech JFK was dead, his place in the pantheon a debatable sum of the man and the times.
For the primacy of his role in the enlargement and extension of the Vietnam War, LBJ is one of the most reviled presidents. But his political acumen, a euphemistic reference to necessary moral debauchery, enabled passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . Instead of a demand, LBJ offered a promise, the Great Society. With war and cruelty subtracted, these turbulent times were the birth of modern America. To our credit, we are not idle inheritors of moral capital; it has continued to evolve under our stewardship.
But in contradiction to the footsteps of giants that we see through the lens of time, JFK and LBJ had personally abhorrent traits. Ronald Kessler’s In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, is a sobering read. The depravities and personality traits of some recent presidents could not be more disturbing if it turned out they had their own personal email servers.
The revelations about these presidents have fueled historical revisionism. Both seem too flawed for pivotal roles in the authoring of modern America. But stripped of saintly motivations, what happened, happened. We are left to wonder the proportions in which they lead, followed, and drifted with the currents.
The current contenders, apart from lapses of etiquette, deportment, and personal email servers, seem upstanding by comparison. Yet they share the inability to find in today’s issues, the grounds of potential greatness. Like some sacred religious tome, the legacy of the early sixties has solidified into definition, not invocation.
The question, which claims the promise to unlock future mysteries, is: Why is this so? We could round up the usual suspects:
- The electorate.
- The candidates.
- The American dream, and revisions thereof.
And so forth. To the political partisan, the candidate is the image of salvation, remaining whole till the next Burning Man Festival. You have that much time to figure out the answer. If you can turn in your homework early, you may be able to claim your place at the pundit’s round table.