After I finished my column last week, I couldn’t shake the feeling I missed something important.
The thought kept returning and, eventually, my muddled brain slowly kicked in and I began to look at my generation in a slightly different way.
I think I’ve come closer to the question that has eluded me for the past 40 years. It has always been obvious that something happened in this country that change it from the bastion of idealism to the cradle of cynicism.
My generation lived through a quiet revolution in the 1960s and ’70s. By quiet, I mean there wasn’t a violent overthrow of the government, but a gradual destruction of our core beliefs, ethics, public discourse, expectations of government and the entrenched stubbornness of both sides of our political spectrum.
Prior to my generation, this country never lost a war. The Korean War was a draw that could have been won, except that for the first time, politicians micromanaged the conflict.
Some will say President Abraham Lincoln micromanaged the Civil War, but he only acted to ensure the North’s victory, as opposed to micromanaging to a draw or outright defeat.
Even taking into consideration the draw in the Korean War, we were still an openly optimistic nation that firmly believed in our “Manifest Destiny” and the “American Way.”
We rightfully thought that we were without a doubt the finest nation, in every aspect, on earth. Today, we beat ourselves up over every and anything we did in our history, especially the errors we may have made.
We have lost sight of what made us great from and different than any other government in history.
So what was the pivotal event that changed my generation’s perspective of our nation and, to a far greater degree, changed the nation?
In 1960, our parents elected a man from their generation, John F. Kennedy, who was completely different from the presidents prior to him, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
He was young, a war hero, wealthy, very intelligent and charismatic with a beautiful wife, to boot. Kennedy was the symbol of everything new and what was of value from the old. He saw the country through a different lens and, at the same time, clearly recognized our innate greatness.
Even though many if not most of the country were not very impressed with his presidency, that all changed on Nov. 22, 1963. John F. Kennedy went from a so-so president who would have fallen somewhere in the middle of great presidents to a position of martyrdom.
That in itself placed him in a unique place among our presidents; he became another Lincoln in the nation’s eyes. He died before he could finish the transformation that he envisioned for the country.
His vision of the country and its place in the world ended and a new president took office and shunned much of what Kennedy stood for. A little bit of doubt about our belief in our government and selves crept into the national consciousness.
Camelot and its charismatic leader was replaced with a cynical, backroom sleaze and a power hungry political operative who was brought into Kennedy’s administration because Kennedy needed the Southern vote and the power that Johnson welded in the Senate.
Johnson’s effect on my generation has largely gone unnoticed because the emphasis of our early political awareness was centered on Kennedy and his assassination.
Johnson was the epitome of all that was wrong with politics then and now. He was an entrenched, career politician who wheeled and dealt his way through the political system and emerged as the leader of the Senate with ambitions for the highest office.
His ego far exceeded his ability to lead the country, especially after Kennedy’s assassination. In his mind, he wanted to outshine any Democratic president before him. He wanted to go down in history either right above or just below Franklin Roosevelt.
His entire focus was on outdoing Roosevelt in every sphere: social programs, war and peace, etc. Does that sound familiar?
My generation was fixated on Kennedy and the lost ideals that he epitomized — a man on the moon, the early awakening of the Civil Rights Movement, the realignment of the military, the space race, missile gap, the re-examining the military philosophy of the domino effect and if that theory was factual.
He wanted a world where all nations could co-exist in a peaceful way. In our eyes, Kennedy was an ideal more than a man. Lyndon Johnson was the exact opposite of Kennedy in our eyes, and we were not about to accept him in any way.
Johnson pushed the country to the brink of revolution in his presidency. The country revolted against the war in Vietnam, the values that the country held in the highest esteem from its inception, trust in the government was destroyed, respect for all authority was crushed, the streets were occupied by all sorts of protests, riots erupted after every tragedy that occurred and civil discourse died.
We took up causes that hurt the economy and destroyed manufacturing. The divisions we face today were conceived in my generation by a disillusioned youth.
My generation defied the “Man” and all what the “Man” stood for. The rebellious youth of my day moved from colleges and universities into journalism, politics and education, where their influences are still reverberating.
Our current “old guard” leadership in the federal government is my generation’s last hurrah. Have you noticed how many of our “quote, unquote” leaders are from my generation and how they continue to carry the same old protests with them even after all these years?
The effects my generation have had on the country and culture are remarkable for the way it undercut our traditions.
Everything from entertainment, education, business and religion were affected and were questioned, and we sought to change every aspect of the way this country was and, as a result, we influenced every aspect of our lives to this day.
We started down the road we are on and, instead of creating remedies for the actual problems that we were facing at the time, we made society the problem. Looking back, some of the fundamental changes that my generation made are still affecting our society and culture to this day.
BERNARD LESLIE is a beekeeping expert who lives beside Kentucky Lake in the northeast corner of Henry County. His email address is email@example.com.