A long time ago, a guy named John Kennedy was shot. And I'm pretty sure American politics is still struggling to recover from that.
Kennedy's Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, succeeded him, was officially elected himself the next campaign season, did everything he could to build on the New Frontier in his Great Society, and then chose not to run for a second time. This brought us Richard Nixon into the White House, the man Kennedy had successfully defeated for the office a decade earlier, finally humiliated out of public office, or so it seemed at the time. Then Nixon resigned the Presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Ford pardoned him, Carter left office amid the Iranian hostage crisis, and Reagan dominated the '80s, could claim victory in the Cold War, and his Vice President, George H.W. Bush, took office, and after a single term Bill Clinton did his very best to be the new Kennedy, then George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama.
Now, I've always maintained a neutral voting status even though I tend to think Republicans are generally more honest in what they think than Democrats. Democrats, I think, are as hung up on Kennedy as anyone else. Clinton and Obama both fervently courted his persona of cultural popularity while maintaining their status as direct answers to what Democrats at the time were thinking about Republicans.
Reagan made Democrats particularly mad because he was on the whole one of the more successful Presidents in history, whether or not you choose to believe he more or less singlehandedly finally ended the Cold War nearly five decades after it began in the wake of WWII. The only President to rival his popularity in the twentieth century would be the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, who was successfully elected to four terms as President and has the distinction of ending the quagmire of the Great Depression. Democrats since his time have been following in Roosevelt's footsteps in all their policies, just as they've desperately sought the mystique of Kennedy.
Kennedy's legacy otherwise is hard to quantify. Since he was in office only a thousand days, and was known for epic blunders as much as anything else, and Johnson or Nixon got to hit all the big marks he'd set out to accomplish, some historians tend to downplay his impact. Yet his is the template, as much as Roosevelt's, that Democrats have courted ever since, without ever really considering that it was more than just popularity that created his Presidency.
Yet there you have it. Clinton undermined the first Bush's chances at reelection in part because he was a born campaigner. Part of his early legacy was the book Primary Colors, which amply demonstrates exactly what helped drive Clinton to the White House. There are few people, besides perhaps his wife Hillary, with as much political ambition as Bill, who savors the idea of being great without really knowing how to achieve it.
So Republicans really had a field day during his whole time in office, culminating in a nominal impeachment over his sexual indiscretions. A lot of people thought he was a pretty great President, though, all told, because otherwise things seemed to go great and he stayed out of international trouble, for the most part.
Then his Vice President, Al Gore, attempted to succeed him, and Democrats started to show just how petty they really are, painting his rival, the second Bush, as an idiot, because that's the best they could do. They trotted out States Rights in the disputed election results (because historically, States Rights is a brilliant American legacy) that followed, and decided it was okay to quickly divide the nation in the wake of 9/11, returning to their story that Bush simply wasn't worth supporting, which was in direct retaliation for how Clinton was treated, which was in direct retaliation for how popular Reagan was, which was in strict opposition to everything the Democrats hoped to have achieved with the legacy of Kennedy...
So then Obama became President, and we've become so bitterly divided as a nation that the primary candidates to replace him all seem equally unlikely to unite the country around them, all for different reasons. Hillary Clinton, because she's what everyone thought was actually the worst about her husband (despite seemingly garnering massive amounts of sympathy in the wake of his impeachment hearings). Sanders because of the socialism line. And Trump? Because he's what results when the Republicans do what Clinton and Obama did before him, shouting very loudly against everything his opponents have been failing to do.
Even if you don't agree with all my characterizations or conclusions, the fact is, we have an election season that has a lot of unappealing options. I've got Ted Cruz in my pocket in that he once did an epic filibuster, and I wrote about that here, the same way I wrote about Obama years before he became President. (Like Clinton's legacy, Cruz could at least claim to know how to be a politician.) It just seemed like a moment signaling the future. Maybe Cruz doesn't have a shot at getting the nomination, because the Republicans are really all over the place on whether they'll let Trump go all the way, and Cruz looks like the last man standing in his way.
The problem with Cruz, and with Trump, and with Clinton, and with Sanders, is that none of them are interested in saying how ridiculous partisan politics have become. That's maybe not what you do when a candidate hasn't even been decided yet, but I think a lot of people would start feeling a lot more comfortable if there were someone out there who put political differences aside for the moment, and just tried to do right by the country. I don't particularly like Democrats, because traditionally they've been the first ones to badmouth the competition. I just think that's bad form. The big Republican names from the '90s, like Newt Gingrich, never had a shot at winning the big office. I think that's telling. And yet now we have Trump, who's playing very much the Democrat game precisely because it's been so, so successful for them, in a way that, say, the Tea Party wasn't for Republicans. Trump is an extreme Reaganite. Without Reagan, there would be no Trump. As far as I know, no one has made that connection. But it shouldn't surprise you to hear something like that.
Trump gets to say the insane things he says because Obama has spent so much time dodging the big questions, building a legacy that isn't even particularly from the Democratic Party. I mean, I have firsthand experience with Mitt Romney's version of Obamacare while I was living in Massachusetts. But Republicans can't admit that anymore than Democrats can, because this is the circus of American politics, circa 2016. Trump exists, is still surging in the polls, because he's sure of what he says, rather than the extreme caution Obama has consistently exhibited through his two terms in office. The obstructionism he's experienced is the same obstructionism that Bush experienced before him, which I assume is what Clinton experienced, too, or so Democrats certainly thought.
It's insane. So we've got an insane election season. Because, or so I'd like to argue, a guy named John Kennedy was shot. We'll never know what he could have achieved had he lived. But we do know he was unpopular, too, in his time, for exactly the same ideological reasons as we experience today, which have existed for as long as we've been electing people in this country. Jefferson and Adams died as friends, but lived as bitter enemies. Kennedy became more popular in death than he ever could have been in life. The same thing happened to Lincoln, and to a certain extent Washington, who was dead in the water as a general during the Revolutionary War. Like Grant after him, victory meant people loved him regardless of his personal attributes or fitness for the highest office. History doesn't particularly care about the facts. Memory certainly doesn't. And the present absolutely doesn't. We're a people who believe what we want to believe. That's literally what it means to be an American. It's what makes it so interesting, and so frustrating, to be one, and why someone like Donald Trump looks like he has a real shot at becoming President. As with all the best scare tactics of modern life, his detractors claim Trump would turn out to be Hitler, if elected. Which is utter nonsense. Kennedy, and everyone after him, helped prove the limits of power in the United States.
For better or worse. It's not what you say, but what you do. And we have excellent ways of curtailing what presidents do here. Because on the whole we hate them all, until they're just a memory. And then we sometimes reconsider. Try to keep that in mind.