What we can learn from Kennedy’s ‘Camelot’ to inspire the next generation of leaders

·5 min read

Another Nov. 22, the date of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, has come and gone, but to this day it brings back memories of a different nation than the America of today.

Bob Kustra
Bob Kustra

His presidency remains unfulfilled in history, but First Lady Jackie Kennedy in an interview after her husband’s death, coined the term “Camelot” to paint a picture of unparalleled happiness and joy, and it seemed to stick over the years with the media, whether an inflated view of the times or not.

As divisive as our politics have become today, it is difficult for current-day observers to imagine a time when the word “Camelot” would describe an American presidency. But it fits with my memory of those Kennedy years. It was not the details of his abbreviated presidency that necessarily captured the hearts and minds of the folks in my family and neighborhood. (They certainly wouldn’t approve of some aspects of his personal life that came to light years later.) It was his youthful exuberance, his wartime heroic exploits on the PT 109 and his charismatic appeal to working-class folks and young people that resonated with so many of us.

Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency in 1960 was followed closely by my family. When he campaigned at a shopping center not far from our neighborhood, we thought he had come just to see us. A portrait of John and Bobby Kennedy graced the hallway of our home as any Irish-Catholic mother would hang as a reminder of who could become the first Catholic elected president of the United States.

As a student at the time, I was mesmerized by Kennedy’s charm and wit, his ability to portray the public service as the noblest of professions and an honorable career choice for young people charting their futures. His most famous appeal to his fellow Americans was “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That struck such a responsive chord with me personally that I used it as the theme of the address I was chosen to give to my high school graduating class. And in many ways, it defined the career choices I would make over the years.

His campaign, calling for a New Frontier, promised a bright future for those of us about to plan a career of our own. Kennedy’s campaign pledge to put a man on the moon in response to the Russians’ Sputnik, the first earth satellite launched into space, galvanized those of us raised in a Cold War where communists were portrayed as attempting to destroy our democratic way of life. A man on the moon would reassert United States supremacy across the globe.

In a 1960 campaign stop at the University of Michigan, Kennedy proposed a Peace Corps that fit perfectly with his plea that Americans ask what they can do for their country. The Peace Corps would help people in foreign lands gain a better understanding of Americans and it would supply American talent to countries short on certain skills and competencies. By 2020, the Peace Corps has grown from its first class of 51 volunteers in 1961 to the more than 240,000 Peace Corp members who have served since then in 142 countries.

Camelot came to an abrupt halt when Kennedy was assassinated, followed by brother Bobby’s and then Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassinations. Riots in the streets ensued, whether the instigation was rage over King’s death or a Vietnam War claiming thousands of American lives. The ’60s earned the distinction as one of the most tumultuous and divisive decades in American history.

Notwithstanding the violence and the assassinations of the ’60s, the decade also witnessed the passage of some of the most progressive legislation in American history. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act protected the right to vote, in contrast to today’s voter suppression strategies employed by the U.S. Supreme Court and Republican-controlled legislatures intent on removing voters from the polls and making it more difficult to vote.

On this year’s anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, I reflected on those Camelot years when the nation seemed headed in the right direction and the American president inspired young people to contribute to a common good.

It’s quite the contrast to today’s politics, with our politicians of the day hardly able to inspire or unite our country. Ever since President Reagan took the positive spin off public service by declaring that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” the bloom has fallen off the rose of public service.

President Biden relieved America of a presidential nightmare that will reserve for him a fitting place in history. His infrastructure plan that will rebuild America will help secure that spot for him.

But Biden is hardly the president who can arouse the passions of young people and inspire them to outdo the last generation as Kennedy did with his extraordinary ability to appeal to our better angels. Months and months of bureaucratic and legislative wrestling within the Democratic Party did little to lift the spirits of Americans discouraged by four years of Trumpian dystopia and hoping for a quicker and smoother route to problem solving in government. The COVID pandemic only widened the chasm between Americans firmly entrenched in their respective positions on the political spectrum.

While President Biden is now making his way across the nation to help Americans understand the positive impact the infrastructure bill will have on their states and communities, it will take a new generation of Americans to take the baton from current leaders and engage the next generation. There are plenty of charlatans on the political stage today who appeal to our worst instincts, but where is the next generation of leaders who will heal the wounds of hyper partisanship and focus on issues that can bring Americans together?

Wherever they are, they’d better step up to the challenge and return the public service to the lofty heights of a Camelot. For the rest of us, let’s lend our support to youthful leaders who will take us into a brighter future.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Reader’s Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a regular columnist for the Idaho Statesman. He served two terms as Illinois lieutenant governor and 10 years as a state legislator.

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