Window-shopping youtube for glimpses of insight, I happened upon a grainy, black-and-white clip of a poignant moment in American history. Decades have passed in procession since the airing of this television program, yet the images and words posed a timely question about current American politics.
The United States was enduring a wrenching time when the show aired. Only a few months before, President John Kennedy had been shot by a sniper on the streets of Dallas. Grief weighed on the nation; the public was still in disbelief of the loss. Robert Kennedy, the slain president’s younger brother, had retreated to the seclusion of his grief and despair after the murder. He chose the late night conversation show hosted by the urbane Jack Paar to re-emerge in public.
As the youtube clip began, Paar spoke thoughtfully of “a man whose own life reminds us what brother really means, the distinguished Attorney General,” and then Robert Kennedy walked to the stage. How unimposing he looked. He cut a slight figure in a plain suit, and sported a haircut far from stylish. Kennedy did not stride with the brisk gait that politicians have since adopted. As he took his seat, the audience rose as one and erupted in applause. The camera panned the crowd, and I sensed they were grateful to express their love for their martyred president through this show of affection.
After waiting for the applause to fade and the audience to settle back, Paar opened with a question about the young widow, Jacqueline Kennedy: how was she dealing with her grief. Bobby answered in a voice colored with tenderness, “She spends most of her time with her children.” Paar then asked Kennedy what he thought the late president’s greatest contribution had been. Without hesitation, he answered, “He made America feel young again.” The expression seemed to surprise Kennedy himself. John Kennedy had given Americans a new confidence in themselves, Robert elaborated. President Kennedy had also instilled confidence in others that America stood for certain principles and values and would fight to protect them, if need be.
Confidence: the word stood out for me. Yes, America then had confidence in her leaders. I thought of the U.S. Army, in the summer of 1961, facing down Soviet tanks in Berlin and preventing them from intimidating freedom’s isolated outpost. I remembered televised scenes of federal marshals escorting a lonely figure of courage, the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, despite the mobs egged on by the erratic governor of that state. The nation’s feelings were of accomplishment and possibilities.
When Kennedy paused, the audience again applauded, giving voice to their pent up emotions. Robert let the applause roll over him, knowing I am sure that it displayed the American people’s love for his brother. And perhaps that they dared to hope that the youthful confidence the country had gained had not been stolen by the furtive assassin. The ensuing years, I regret to say, have cast this confidence into the shadows.
The short clip of a leader’s re-emergence and an audience’s love told a story tinged with possibility–a sense of what leadership means and how it can instill the courage to face trials. Could the sense of confidence so palpable in this snippet of history be revived in our country? There can be little chance of real leadership without a love earned by a president’s moral courage and as felt by that audience in 1964. Such love is not to be confused with its counterfeit, adulation—whose filament may shine brightest just before it burns out. When leadership is tested and shown to be formidable, it proves worthy of popular respect. Only then can the people draw confidence from their leader.
Love never fails; but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish.
Paul, I Corinthians 13:8