JDB on JFK 50

On November 22, 2013, I was deeply moved to participate in the BBC’s coverage of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. I made a series of appearances on both BBC World News and on the BBC News Channel throughout the day, starting at 12:30 and ending at 20:30 as the station reflected on events from 1963 and the ensuing impact on US politics.

I was gratified to be able to work with the likes of Stephen Sackur, Nick Bryant and Tim Wilcox, as well as with the former White House correspondent for Time Magazine, Jef McAllister. Having watched Martin Sixmith’s report on the BBC news reflecting on the 25th anniversary in 1988 it was a poignant moment to be working with the BBC to mark this solemn occasion.

Whilst the BBC’s coverage of events was admirable, the ceremony designed to do so in Dallas was a travesty that appeared more to mourn the impact that the events had on the city than on the loss of the young president and the implications that this had for the nation and the world.

It was, in many ways, all too appropriate, for it reminded us of the manner in which Kennedy’s style, grace and charm was extinguished and replaced with Texan BBQ and crass antics 50 years ago.

Those chosen to speak clearly had no knowledge or interest in Kennedy; what he stood for, or what he sought to achieve. This was, along with move of the television coverage in general this week, an attempt to whitewash history and to deny certain truths. No mention was made, for example, of the Texan schoolchildren who cheered upon hearing the news of the shooting, having been raised in a climate of loathing toward the president in a city known then as The Hate Capital of Dixie. The clergy, tasked with reflecting on JFK, chose to use words initially spoken by George Bernard Shaw, adopted by RFK during his ill-fated campaign in 1968 and used so memorably in Ted Kennedy’s speech at Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Great words, but singularly unconnected with JFK. Asking David McCullough to speak was also strange. A gifted author and orator, but again, where was the Kennedy connection?

The crass nature of the remarks, the glib attempt at a memorial service made a mockery of the events being observed. Hardly any surprise that no one intimately associated with the family was represented.

The death of President Kennedy was a dark day in the history of the United States and one whose impact is all too often forgotten. The ceremony in Dallas did little to improve the city’s standing and served only, perhaps, to remind us further of what was lost 50 years ago.

Shoot To Thrill: Guns and Politics in the United States

For the last few weeks the perennial issue of gun ownership in the United States has come up for discussion once more. This tired debate resurfaces only in the aftermath of some particularly heinous event, something that actually shocks the masses from their stupor. This time it was a shooting in a cinema. Previously it had been high schools, universities, the senseless deaths of senseless celebrities, or the heart wrenching assassination of national leaders and presidential candidates. The events in Colorado, therefore, are part of a pattern that looks set to continue.

It will continue irrespective of the debate that is held outside the United States. It will continue irrespective of how many children are killed in their classrooms by fellow students, in schools with airport style metal detectors and armed police on their grounds. It will continue despite the inevitable gangland style shooting of the next singer with an over inflated sense of his own self-importance and streetwise values. It will continue despite the next assassination of a presidential candidate dedicated to offering a new direction to the United States. It will continue despite the next murder of a president, beloved abroad, but hated by an angry section of his own countrymen.

It will continue because there is neither the political courage nor incentive to do anything about it. It will continue because even in the 21st century, there remains a frontier mentality in the United States that feels the need to arm itself to the teeth to demonstrate that the cowboy is still alive.

We have been here before on countless occasions; tragedy in America, followed by soul searching, the furrowing of brows and presidential commiseration. This is a divided America, torn between those that want to do something to prevent someone else committing such a crime, and those who simply want to ensure that the guilty party cannot commit crime in the future.

Overseas the charade is viewed with increasing disdain and dismay. This, however, is an element in the constant misunderstanding of the United States, in particular in Europe, where it is assumed that Americans are like ‘us’ rite large. They are not, and the nation is not. There is a mentality that most foreigners never comprehend and an approach to life that is equally incomprehensible to most non-Americans. And why should this not be the case? After all, most foreigners never set foot in the ‘America’ that is currently under debate.

The perception that most non-Americas have of the United States is derived from superficial vacations and hours spent in front of the television watching idealised versions of ‘America.’ But America is not Disneyland, Disney World, Six Flags, or Universal Studios. Neither, ultimately, is it New York, L.A., Boston, Chicago, Orlando or San Francisco. It certainly isn’t Friends, Fraser, Cheers, Sex and the City or Boston Legal. This is the liberal interpretation of the United States, sold to the world as a perfect holiday destination.

These cities, these destinations, these shows are what most foreigners identify as being ‘America’. They are also the epicentres of the Democratic Party’s voting base, and as such representative of precisely HALF of the United States’ demographic. Anyone who claims to ‘know’ America having spent time in any one of these places is deluding themselves and anyone dumb enough to listen. They may as well have spent all their time on ‘It’s a Small World’ at Disney for all that they will have gleaned about the USA.

No one can seek to comprehend the ‘America’ that clings to its guns, its God and its freedom from government if they insist on flying over the Red States. So long as visitors stay hemmed in between the East Coast and the Appalachians or the West Coast and the Rockies, they will never comprehend the three thousand miles of conservative heartland that lies in between. It is here that the explanation for the continuing tale surrounding gun control can best be understood. It is here that people fail to look for answers and why such debate is flawed, patronising and irrelevant.

It is here that Washington D.C. feels as far removed from people’s lives as it would to a foreigner. It is here that small town values are still adhered to and are a part of daily life, where people feel no need to lock their doors, where communities are close knit, yet often miles apart. This is the agricultural heartland of the nation; inherently white, agrarian, religious and Republican. They do not cling to the second amendment out of a perverse wish to own semi-automatic weapons. Some in the farming community will need firearms as a way of life. Most however, adhere to the second amendment as a protection of personal freedom to defend oneself, if necessary, against the government. It would be feared that repealing the second amendment would be the first step on a slippery slope towards government infringements on all aspects of everyday life.

This after all is not just a law; it is a Constitutionally mandated RIGHT. The Constitution of the United States would not have been ratified had it not been for he attachment of the Bill of Rights, of which the second amendment is part, as it was feared that the constitution alone did not offer sufficient protection FROM the government. When one appreciates this, it is easier to understand why repealing one of the original ten laws that guaranteed the rights of Americans is so problematic.

Clearly, debate rages over the meaning of the second amendment. Does it guarantee the right to bear arms to all citizens, or only as part of a well-formed militia? Certainly the language leaves ample room for interpretation, discussion and debate, written at a time when memories of British Redcoats were fresh in the mind. However it is interpreted, it is part of American law and lore, a central element in the document that forms the basis for the nation and the American way of life.

For non-Americans, it is perhaps easy to forget the importance of the Constitution in American life. Suggesting alterations are akin to tinkering with Magna Carta (though this has, of course, been altered!). Constitutional change is not attempted lightly or achieved without great struggle, notwithstanding the demands of tabloid journalists. The Constitution came into effect on March 4, 1789, along with the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, including the much-debated second amendment, guaranteeing the right to bear arms.  Since then the constitution has been amended on 17 times, and 2 of these amendments addressed the introduction and then repeal of prohibition. This was also the only amendment that ever restricted the rights of the citizen, all other amendments restrict the right of the government or are procedural, dealing with issues such as presidential succession.

To change the Constitution requires not only that the Executive and the Legislative branches of government agree in a simple majority, as would be required to pass a normal piece of legislation. Instead, the President must approve, as well as a Super Majority in Congress (2/3 in favour). In addition, 3/4 of all fifty states must then vote to approve of the change in a process that can take up to seven years to implement. This therefore is a major undertaking, the like of which is not entered into lightly or often.

No president will attempt to initiate such a process unless he is confident of success, since to fail would carry great political ramifications. The last great effort to alter the Constitution in this fashion was in the 1970s and attempts to implement an Equal Rights Amendment that sought to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender. As introduced under Carter this appeared to be a no-brainer, but it failed to achieve a majority in the states and therefore failed to be implemented.

Taking on the gun lobby as well as the millions of Americans who are adamantly opposed to any such move would be an epoch-making moment for any American president. He would not only be risking his own tenure in office, but also those of ay member of Congress or State legislatures that supported such legislation. Such a move would have to have such a groundswell of support that it would need to be wrong to vote against it, such as the Civil Rights Act. To get to that point would take some national gun related tragedy, the like of which has clearly not yet been experienced. Which raises the questions as to what America must experience before it is ready to address this situation in a sensible fashion. Children are killed in their classrooms and four Presidents have been shot and killed. Within 8 weeks in 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot. President Reagan came within millimetres of being assassinated after just 12 weeks in office. Every time President Obama speaks in public he does so behind 6 inches of bulletproof glass. Yet none of this is sufficient to prompt politicians to seek any serious reform. The only efforts to do so occurred under President Clinton, with the Brady Bill, which introduced waiting times for certain weapons under certain circumstances, elements of which have since lapsed.

The debate occasionally raises interesting concepts. If opponents loath the National Rifle Association, why not join it in droves and seek to control it from within, goes one argument. If the right to bear arms is protected, why not just ban bullets, goes another. These are intriguing theoretical ideas but miss the point.

What is needed is political courage and the ability to enter into a forthright, mature national conversation about the continued need for an individual to bear arms, and the abuses that this has brought to modern American society. With political courage being in such short supply, and during a political campaign season characterised by petty personal attacks and a notable absence of policy debate, do not expect such a conversation to happen anytime soon.

Obama and the Death of the American Space Program

The final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery atop of a special 747 (the like of which many people will only have seen at the beginning of the James Bond movie, Moonraker) reveals the true gulf between President Obama’s campaign rhetoric and his vision for and of the United States of America.

Barack Obama campaigned as a visionary, using a high rhetorical style, the like of which had not been heard since the heady days of the 1960s and the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, whose siblings Obama so assiduously courted. He was anointed as a Kennedyesque figure for the 21st century, but almost as soon as he was elected the rhetorical style dimmed along with his apparent vision for the United States of America.

The high rhetoric of the campaign was replaced by a dull monotone delivered from the omnipresent TelePrompTer. The soaring exhortation of a better tomorrow was replaced by a hectoring tone and with a moral and intellectual superiority more reminiscent of Carter than Kennedy.

President Kennedy was known to quote Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” America faces such a situation today under President Obama and this is exemplified in the state of the space programme.

The role of NASA in the American psyche has been essential since President Kennedy made the astronaut the hero of the New Frontier and dedicated the United States to a mission like no other: To place a man on another world. Kennedy used the Space Program as a tool in the Cold War, but also to inspire a generation of Americans to greatness. “We chose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he told an audience at Rice University. The successful accomplishment of that mission was the culmination of a dream, a political struggle and the dedication of millions of man-hours by the hard working people on Florida’s Space Coast and at installations across the nation. It epitomised the American ‘can-do’ attitude that had seen the nation grow and become the most powerfully in the world in such a short period of time. In retrospect, however, it was perhaps the apex of the American century.

With the 1970s came the decision by the Nixon administration to initiate the Shuttle programme, designed to make space travel more routine and business-like, utilising a reusable vessel capable of delivering a payload and then returning safely to earth. To a new generation, the Space Shuttle became the epitome of the United States in the 1980s as it soared majestically into the clear blue skies over the Kennedy Space Centre, taking the United States into space and making such missions seem routine. But the launches never lost the ability to strike awe into all who witnessed them. There was something in the power, the majesty, the danger and the romance of the space mission that drew all in homage. It was a thrilling, exciting and dangerous exercise, which continued the original quest that Kennedy had inspired.

Politicians of all parties were happy to revel in the reflected glory of the space mission and the recognition that it separated the United States from all other nations. It was an extension of Manifest Destiny and the epitome of American Exceptionalism in the third millennium. Even President George W. Bush announced plans to send a manned mission to Mars to continue the ongoing American mission to take mankind beyond the confines of its home planet.

However, the President of the United States has now terminated the shuttle program and cancelled the manned mission to Mars. At a stroke he has announced America’s abdication of space at precisely the moment when America’s competitors appear capable of assuming a foothold in that vital region. To do so is folly and gives credence to those who claim that this president fails to recognise the exceptionalism of the United States. His actions add fuel to those who wish to talk and write endlessly of an inevitable American decline.

NASA’s Space Centre in Florida, for all the romance associated with it, has become a sad reflection of its heyday, it’s facilitates yearning for a new mission to once again inspire the world with American ingenuity. Newt Gingrich recently spoke of developing a Moon base if elected president, a sentiment that received mockery around the world. However, whilst it is clear that ‘Moonbase Gingrich’ is about as likely as a Gingrich Administration, at least the former Speaker was offering a vision of a return to the glory days of America’s space mission. The present occupant of the Oval Office offers no such vision and as a result the very rationale for NASA may perish.

The world’s media covered the final flight of the Discovery but they appeared to miss the point. This was not a flight of fantasy, but rather a one-way trip to become a museum piece, to be stared at by children, too young to recall its magic and majesty, and mourned by those who could. It will be placed in a mausoleum by a president who campaigned as a visionary and appears capable only of presiding of the diminution of the United States; a president who appears not to appreciate the power of imagination and ideas that helped propel the American people from sea to shining sea and then out into the stars.

The final flight of the Discovery across the skies above Washington DC resembled the sad, lonely flight of Air Force One on November 25, 1963, as it flew low over the nation’s capital, crossed the Potomac and dipped its wings in final salute to the memory of the man who had inspired the moon mission and whose body was at that very moment being lowered into the ground at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Without vision the people perish.” It is such vision that America, its people and its space program require today from its President.

(This article originally appeared on The Commentator website Apil 18, 2012)