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The day was Nov…

May 23, 2012

The day was November 22, 1963.  Slowly, over the radio and television, Americans learned that President Kennedy had been shot to death in Dallas as he rode in a motorcade through the city.  That same day, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson became the nation’s 36th President.  In a famous photograph taken aboard Air Force One, a somber Johnson stands beside Jacqueline Kennedy (her dress still spattered with blood) as he takes the oath of office.

The brilliant work of historian and biographer Robert Caro enables us as readers to understand the context, the story and the reality behind this photograph:  the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson hated one another.

In a political feud that became primal, the Kennedy’s viewed Johnson as a grasping, ambitious and ruthless man—they viewed his family, social class, education and Southern heritage with contempt and disdain.

For Johnson, the Kennedys represented the presumption of privilege, affluence and entitlement in America.  He scowled at the Kennedy’s wealth, prep school and elite Eastern college experiences.  He saw John and Bobby Kennedy as soft, weak and pampered, ultimately undeserving of the positions of political power they acquired through the wealth and manipulation of their father.

Yet Kennedy needed Johnson to provide a crucial electoral boost in the 1960 Presidential election, and Johnson decided that serving as John Kennedy’s Vice President would give him the best chance of reaching his ultimate goal of becoming President.  He calculated the exact percentage chance of a President dying in office.

When Air Force One landed in Washington carrying the body of President Kennedy, a grieving widow and a new President, Bobby Kennedy met the plane.  In a recent review of Caro’s book, Garry Wills describes the dramatic scene that unfolded:

Robert Kennedy sped up the steps to the plane and rushed fiercely down the length of the cabin through everyone standing in his way (including the new President) to reach Jacqueline Kennedy.  Understandable that he would first of all want to comfort the widow?  Yes, but, this was the first of many ways Bobby tried in the first days to ignore the man who had ignominiously, in his eyes, supplanted his brother by a murder in the man’s own Texas.

Caro understands that Bobby was determined not to see Johnson, even if he saw him—so he did not see him.  But Johnson saw him not seeing, and hated him the more.  That is how hate narrows one—narrows what one wants to see, or is able to see, in order to keep one’s hatred tended and hard.

As Wills’ essay suggests, the power of hatred overwhelms both Johnson and Bobby Kennedy at a particularly pivotal moment in the history of the country and their relationship.  As Wills points out, there could have been opportunity to compromise here: 

Bobby should have recognized the need of the nation, and gulped down the unpleasant fact that Johnson was the President now.  He should have set a pattern for stricken Kennedy loyalists on the plane.  Johnson . . . should have sympathized with a brother still reeling from an incalculable loss, a man moving in a blur of emotions, and he should have swallowed his resentment at the snub.  But they were blocked from the generosities needed at such a moment of tragedy by their previous clashes . . .

Caro and Wills give us an opportunity to study the phenomenon of hatred in our lives.  I was particularly struck by Wills’ sentence:  “That is how hate narrows one—narrows what one wants to see, or is able to see, in order to keep one’s hatred tended and hard.”

Let’s do a close reading of that remarkable observation.  We notice immediately Wills’ repetition of the word “narrow”—it is a word that suggests that when we hate, we diminish our perspective, our vision, our outlook—we create a habit and insistence on seeing only what confirms our prejudice, our depravity, our hatred.  And furthermore, this narrowing not only confirms our vision—it prevents us from considering alternative points of views and perspectives that might liberate us from our hatred.

But what is most disturbing and unfailingly accurate is Wills’ description of the love and attention we bring to the emotion and phenomenon of hatred.  He suggests we carefully tend to this emotion—we seek to make it hard, invincible and unchangeable; he implies we nurture our grievances as we would tend a garden.

I am sorry to say that Caro and Wills are right in their assessment of the power of hatred in the adult world.  We know all too well that once created, nurtured and engendered, hatred is a force that will show no mercy, know no boundaries and reject any offers of reconciliation, empathy and forgiveness.  Hatred can be fueled by resentment, envy, competition and ambition.  It usually arises from a desire to destroy, denigrate or desecrate a person who seems to have an aura of success, contentment and ease in the world.  In adolescence, boys and girls practice the art of hatred—they freeze one another out of conversations; they refuse to honor or even recognize a peer’s individuality.  They may use gender or race or social class or sexual orientation as a weapon to wound their victim.  In adolescence, these expressions of hatred can be fleeting and temporary, evidence more of the offending person’s fear, insecurity and hatred of self. 

Adults, though, have mastered the art form:  they narrow their perspective, construct narratives that feed their hatred and disdain.  They apply every conversation, every insight through the narrowing prism of hatred, and they develop an insatiable urge to strike out, to threaten and to destroy.

That is why we focus our School and our culture and our faith on the virtues of love, empathy and compassion.  If hatred is radical egotism, radical narrowing of our worldview, belief system, then love is radical generosity, radical expansion of our capacity to read, embrace and imagine a world where we are serving, loving and sharing.

The Class of 2012 has excelled in the art of expansion and the expression of radical generosity and love.  They know intuitively that it is not easy to meet cruelty, violence and hatred, with love, kindness and peace, but ultimately, they have embraced what the School seeks to express in every aspect of our mission.  We celebrate community—not individualism; we seek to enact a culture of kindness, respect, empathy and generosity at a time when human beings young and old gain identity and affirmation from words, attitudes and behavior that are hateful, discriminatory, violent and narcissistic.  We express a commitment to making the world a better place at a time when people see the world as a stage for their own self-promotion and materialism.  We see diversity as a source of all that could be good in the world at a time when our country becomes narrow, provincial and segregated.  We seek to reduce environmental degradation at a time when citizens believe that they have no responsibility for saving the earth.

St. Andrew’s literal and metaphorical curriculum suggests that we all need expansion—a commitment to widening our perspective, relieving our presumption, privilege and arrogance, and intensifying our desire to do good work for others and the world.  That is why you as seniors have experienced the emerging recognition of the power of friendship, diversity, humanity and courage in your lives—that is why you are different people than you were when you arrived.  And this is why you are ready to go out into the world on Friday.

You seniors have inspired us, lifted us up, strengthened our School and defended our culture.  You have expanded the mission of St. Andrew’s in unprecedented ways.  We thank you, we honor you and we wish you a great last week in the community.  Next year, thanks to you, we are going to expand and flourish as a School of generosity and love.


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