CP Opinion

Thursday, Oct 30, 2014

JFK and the Seduction of Eden

  • (By CP Cartoonist Rod Anderson)
    Wallace Henley is an exclusive CP columnist.
November 20, 2013|8:20 am

A mystical aura seemed to linger over Dallas' Dealey Plaza like the smoke from Lee Harvey Oswald's gun on that chilly day in January, 1964.

Barely two months earlier, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy had been gunned down as his motorcade entered the Plaza. Fresh remembrance chilled my wife and me as we crossed the spot where Kennedy's limo had ducked under the looming Texas School Book Depository. Up there, Oswald had aimed with cold calculation at Kennedy's head.

Irene and I were moving from Alabama to Fort Worth where I was to do graduate studies. No sweeping Interstate loops ringed Dallas in those days, and so we had to go straight through downtown and Dealey Plaza to get to the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike, pay our 35-cents, and take the last leg to the "City Where the West Begins".

Cars were not speeding through Dealey Plaza that day. It was more like the leftovers of a lagging funeral procession. I'm sure spiritists thought Kennedy's ghost still hovered there, trying to make sense of the sudden tear in the back of the head of the body it had once inhabited.

I don't believe in ghosts, but I think this is one time Carl Jung may have been right. Jung was a Swiss psychoanalyst-psycho-theorist, really – who suggested there was evidence of a collective unconscious shared by all humans. There are Jungian theories I cannot embrace, but I find intriguing his idea that all of us, at every point in history and culture, have certain big memories ("archetypes", "memes") that haunt our subconscious.

Like Eden.

"God has set eternity in our hearts," says Ecclesiastes 3:11. At the core of our being there is a longing for a kingdom that constitutes true paradise. God's Kingdom was the order of Eden before the entry of sin. Whether because the story has been around so long, or we have some intuitive flash of it, Eden seems to drive our passions for exploration, progress, and even political policy.

The Eden Seduction is every politician's "gotcha". Huey Long's promise of a chicken in every pot, LBJ's Great Society, George W. Bush's world-safe-for-democracy – and all the progressivist-populist-nationalist-civil religion proclamations before and after – have dangled paradise in front of our eyes.

And that brings us to John F. Kennedy and Camelot. The idea seeps up into historical consciousness from the dreamy golden age of King Arthur. The romantic literature has him reigning from his castle, Camelot.

Arthur and his blissful utopia may be more legendary than literal, but the dreamy Arthurian tales came to Jackie Kennedy's mind as she spoke a half century ago of her dead husband. In an interview with Theodore White a week after Kennedy's assassination, his widow painted the Camelot image.

"At night before we'd go to sleep," she said, "we had an old Victrola. Jack liked to play some records. His back hurt, the floor was so cold. I'd get out of bed at night and play it for him… and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record, the last side of Camelot, sad Camelot... 'Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.'...There'll never be another Camelot again," Mrs. Kennedy said.

But politicians will keep trying.

Currently we are in the Yes-We-Can paradise. Some believe it to be the restoration of Camelot at last. However, one wonders what late senior Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger would think of it. In 1973, against the morbid backdrop of sinister old Nixon and two-fisted cowboy Lyndon Johnson, urbane Schlesinger wrote The Imperial Presidency. There Schlesinger, then a Harvard professor, warned that when a President reaches beyond constitutionally-given authority, he has become an imperialist.

Back in September, some were still hoping we would buy the goods that the Yes-We-Can paradise is not imperialist. "Today, with President Obama turning to Congress to endorse a military strike on Syria, the imperial presidency is beginning to wane," trumpeted Zachary Karabell in The Atlantic.

That despite Obama granting himself "unprecedented power" in the words of Kimberly Strassel in The Wall Street Journal. The pattern says Strassel, is that "Mr. Obama proposes, Congress refuses, he does it anyway."

Be afraid of Camelot presidencies. Very afraid.

Especially troubling is the fact that Camelot politics fits perfectly with our social media-driven culture. The virtual world embraces virtual promises to restore virtual paradises. In the "Digital Democracy" (author Matthew Hindman's term), candidates are "authentic" based on their engagement with social media.

Perhaps, then, former congressman-former New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is the most authentic politician alive.

John F. Kennedy's authenticity was not as the savior of the world, restorer of paradise, or even king of Camelot. It was in his frail humanity, the constant agony of back-pain, the delight of doting on his children peeking out from under the big desk in the Oval Office, grappling with the sex-addictive demons passed on by his father, searching for policy positions and a presidential legacy, hustling to prove himself under the dominating shadow of a vice president who was possibly the most powerful Senate Majority Leader in history, fretting under the spiritual angst of the conflict between his Catholicism and his immorality.

So on that blustery January day in 1964, I shed a tear as we crossed the spot in Dealey Plaza where, just weeks earlier, the bullet had sent part of a husband's skull and its contents into his wife's lap.

I did not weep for the death of Camelot, because it never was, and only the Lord Christ can restore the Eden-Kingdom. My tear wasn't so much for President John F. Kennedy, but for Jack Kennedy – husband, father, brother and son – whose life was tragically short at age 46 by an act of merciless violence.

I pray the virtual king of virtual Camelot was covered not by his own sacrifices but by the blood of the actual King of Kings and Lord of Lords at His eternal throne.

And that you and I will be too.

Wallace Henley's political career spanned three years in the Nixon White House, two years as a congressional aide and candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as service as a consultant to government agencies and writer on political affairs. He is now Senior Associate Pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church, and lectures on the "critical confluence" of theology and culture as Adjunct Professor in Worldview Studies at Belhaven University.
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