By Tim Hayes
On one wall of my office hangs an enlarged photo of John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert in silhouette, deep in thought during the 1960 presidential campaign.
Once Jack Kennedy had been elected, inaugurated, and entrusted with the office of President, a very tumultuous three years proceeded to unfurl.
One conflict after another with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, including tensions over airlifting humanitarian aid to the encircled democracy of West Berlin, Khrushchev pounding his shoe at the United Nations and shouting to the U.S. delegation that “We will bury you!” and the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the whole world wondered whether it would survive another week.
Kennedy also saw the dawn of the Civil Rights movement at home, including the March on Washington in August 1963, where 250,000 demonstrators gathered within sight of the White House and heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s epic “I have a dream” speech, the insertion of federal marshals to escort minority students past Gov. George Wallace blocking the entrance to the University of Alabama, and JFK’s address to the nation promising to introduce comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress.
Yet, even amid all of the history-shaking events that occurred from 1961 to 1963, Jack Kennedy never lost his wit, his grace, and his sense of humor. He presented a dynamic, hopeful, glamorous, cheerful fighter’s face to the nation and the world. There hasn’t been another political leader since with the same star power. Ronald Reagan might have come close, but no one’s outshone Jack Kennedy.
Even his rhetoric – including off-the-cuff remarks at press conferences, carried on live TV because of the electric engagement between the President and the cadre of White House reporters – had a lightness to it, with a colorful stinger inserted occasionally to get a dig in at a political opponent.
The age of JFK, even with the seemingly unending avalanche of cataclysmic events, represented a more civil time. A time when leaders showed their better sides, while never giving an inch of political ground. How I wish we could return to that environment of respectful speech. To the expectation that those seeking or holding elected office would always measure their words carefully, as educated adults should.
Instead, today’s political climate has de-escalated to the point where officials don’t dare vocalize at anything below a full-throated scream, hurling accusations and insults at those across the aisle. Any talk of compromise gets shouted down as weak and disgraceful. The words chosen to express an idea or an opinion have risen to such a level of hyperbole and outrage, as to become ridiculous and unworthy of serious consideration.
Take the example of another Kennedy, Robert Kennedy Jr., who recently equated the number of children being harmed by vaccines as a “holocaust.” What made this statement even more outrageous, insensitive, and shameful? He said it a week prior to National Holocaust Day, commemorating the slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II.
That’s just one example. They happen every day. And why? It reminds me of the rhetorical equivalent of the famous speech that Sean Connery’s character gives in the film, “The Untouchables,” when he says, “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”
Our political discourse in the U.S. has risen (or sunk) to the point where name-calling and verbal rock-throwing has become the norm. Communicating for maximum shock value has become the minimum standard. But when everyone’s shouting, no one’s listening. And when no one’s listening, nothing good can be accomplished.
Can we ever return to the civility of Jack Kennedy’s respect for language and expression? I think so. I hope so. But we damn sure need to try a lot harder than we have been of late.
Copyright 2015 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting