For the now aging partisans of Camelot, November is a month of anniversaries. It was 50 years ago last week when John F. Kennedy was elected to the presidency as the sophisticated champion of the new liberalism. And it was 47 years ago next week that the dreams of Camelot were cruelly snuffed out on the streets of Dallas.
The dual anniversaries signify the extreme emotions of hope and despair that recollections of the Kennedy years still provoke among those whose political outlooks were shaped during that era. They are one reason why we have yet to find closure as to the meaning of the Kennedy presidency. Still viewed from extreme and shifting perspectives, JFK’s administration has yet to come into clear focus. Nor, according to some, is Camelot yet a thing of the past. For nearly 50 years it has inspired hopes in many that Kennedy’s spirit eventually will be renewed in the person of some new champion.
Thus it was that Barack Obama came to the presidency two years ago amid breathless expectations that he would restore the spirit of Camelot and revive the fortunes of liberalism. Much as happened with JFK, Obama’s admirers showered him with superlatives out of proportion to his actual accomplishments. The Camelot legend, if it had been studied and its lessons taken to heart, might have proved a cautionary tale about the consequences of excessive ambition and of successes gained too early and without effort. The Arthurian tale, after all, does not have a “lived happily ever after” ending.
Nor, as things are beginning to look, will the Obama presidency. The “shellacking” his party took in the midterm elections has killed off all hopes that he will preside over a renewal of any kind, unless it is a renewal of conservatism in response to his missteps and miscalculations. Rarely in the past has a president been so sharply rebuked by the voters in a midterm election. Nor has a president ever squandered so quickly the kinds of political advantages that Obama carried with him into office. Understandably, then, the references to Camelot and to JFK are not much heard these days.
Obama might have learned a thing or two from the real JFK as opposed to the idealized image of the man that took shape after his death. The posthumous references to Kennedy’s idealism have obscured the fact that he was a politician of exceptional skill for whom persuasion and compromise were keys to success. He never wanted to get too far ahead of public opinion, nor did he try to ram through controversial legislation on partisan votes. Though elected by a razor-thin margin in 1960, Kennedy managed to gain a stalemate for his party in the 1962 midterm elections. He was still widely popular in late 1963 when he embarked on that visit to Texas. Had he lived, he undoubtedly would have won reelection by a comfortable margin.
In truth, the Camelot ideal never fit Obama, who brought to the presidency a sense of ambivalence about the American future and America’s role in the world. It is hard to play the role of inspiring leader while counseling one’s citizens to scale back their expectations. While President Obama is capable of eloquence, his attempts often fall short because they are accompanied by an undertow of caution and pessimism. It is hard to imagine Obama saying, as Kennedy did, that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Such bold calls to arms were perfectly consistent with the liberalism of Kennedy’s time, but for many reasons are at odds with the liberalism of today. For better or worse, Obama’s ambitions do not approach the high ideals of Camelot—and he and his admirers might be better off if they acknowledged that.
A defeat can be a terrible thing to waste, especially if it provides one with an incentive to reassess what it is possible to achieve. President Obama is not going to bring about a revolution in the consciousness of our time. Nor will he permanently change the terms of our politics. It was this kind of thinking, based upon arrogant presumptions of greatness, that led to his defeat. By abandoning greatness, however, Obama may yet find a way to survive—and find a role for himself through which he might make a lasting, positive contribution. In doing so he might permit the rest of us to put to rest at last the shattered dreams of Camelot.
James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism.