Camelot 2008: the New Face of America

by Andrew Leech (

It is the day after the 2008 US Elections and I’m watching the world’s reactions to a new president. For those of us who still remember the giddy optimism of the JFK era in the early 1960s, we cannot fail to draw a parallel between the emotions expressed then and now. John F. Kennedy was seen, at the time, as the ‘Hope for the Future;’ an escape from the stalemate of Cold War, where the Iron Curtain was steadily dropping and isolating East and West.

Those of us affected by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961 probably still remember that week, where even young teenagers woke up every morning and wondered whether an atomic war would start and wipe out the life they were trying to embrace and adapt to. “Still alive, I see,” we would joke on meeting friends at school, but inner reality was totally different. The kids were not only terrified, but also numbed by the world’s events and couldn’t really understand why two world powers wanted to unleash the horrors of nuclear war and subject the whole world to radiation and fallout. Neither could they properly articulate those fears.

Their parents well remembered the horrors of WW2 bombing (less than 2 decades earlier) and the thought of now dealing with weapons 20 times stronger than that used on Hiroshima brought about a combination of anger, hopelessness or dejection; and all these feelings, plus uncertainty, were filtering down to the young.

This was one reason for the fervour attached to what was known as the Camelot Era of the early 1960s; the belief that such situations could be avoided and that we, the young, would have a chance to live out our lives and enjoy some happiness. JFK (rightly or wrongly) was viewed as the only person, then, with the youth, strength and stature to achieve this; and his death in 1963, followed by that of his brother Bobby, was felt by many as signifying the end of that hope. Furthermore, the escalation of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s was seen as putting another nail in ‘Hope’s’ coffin!

What is interesting in the parallel between the fervour shown to JFK, prior to November 1963, and that surrounding Barack Obama today, is that in both cases it is based on a perceived hope for the future and the wish to end intolerable situations. That is the essence of what has been seized on, and magnified, by the Press: the restlessness of the modern world, the disillusionment, the wish for change and the fear of what might happen if there is no strong hand on the tiller.

Black Americans see a continuation of the emancipation process that started in the 60s, but now focused more on social acceptance and equality – especially in the Southern States – rather than the legal rights they already possess. They wish to show that an educated African-American can do just as well, if not better, than an educated white in the same situation – and they particularly want that fact acknowledged by those whites that still look down on them.

According to the US Census Bureau, the US population stands at about 300.5 million, with Black Americans forming 40.2 million of that figure. That is around 13.3 % of the total nation. However, what was truly amazing is that amongst the young (18 - 29) 66% of the vote went to Obama, in the next bracket (30 – 44) it was 52%, with the next oldest (45 – 64) coming in at 50%. Only amongst the 65s and older did McCain prevail. The strong message shown here - with far more white votes for Obama than black ones - is that most people are prepared to show that equality, openly, with their vote. They have publicly affirmed they are now prepared to be governed by a man many whites would have looked down on as inferior just a few years ago. Furthermore, they have accepted this man at a time of great political and financial crisis. With an accolade few politicians get, this gives Barack Obama the strong majority any politician needs to get through sweeping legislative change.

For those of you who have seen the photographs of signs in the US South, in the mid 1920s, “No Blacks, Jews, Greeks or dogs wanted here,” you can now feel vindicated … perhaps the next president will be a Greek American, after all!

However, the danger now is that so much hope and expectation has been put on one man’s shoulders; much more than on any recent US president. Will Barack Obama be able to take it? Granted he is young, dynamic, intelligent, charismatic and a hard worker – but he is also human. He has the whole world looking at him and weighing his every move. He is now being put under a near intolerable socio-political microscope and the question is whether he can endure the stress. In a nutshell, the US majority vote has picked up all the nation’s soiled laundry, in one fell swoop, and dumped it in his lap. “You want the bougada (dirty washing), son, you got it,” says a half-smiling, top-hatted, ratty-bearded, lanky Uncle Sam, now standing by, arms folded, to see what the president-elect is going to do with it. And the whole world is looking on with bated breath, crossed fingers and that human, unquenchable spark of hope in their hearts.

I only know of two politicians who stand out (apart from JFK) in the past 68 years; two that have come to power with similar majorities to Barack Obama: Winston Churchill in 1940 and Tony Blair in 1997 – and we all know what they did with that power. Churchill showed great strength and persuaded Brits to stand alone for 3 years (until the US joined in) and fight a war where they were, initially, grossly outnumbered and militarily outclassed; while Blair totally changed the face and psyche of his country and made ‘politically correct’ the order of the day! So a great majority can be a force for either good and bad. It just depends on the hand on the tiller, the course the ship follows … and the crew’s confidence (and support) in the captain’s skill.

(Posted 25 February 2009. Previously published in ELT News, December 2008.)

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