At the end of John F. Kennedy’s favorite musical, Camelot, King Arthur meets a small boy who wants to join the Round Table, unaware that it has been destroyed. Arthur knights the lad (who is supposed to be young Thomas Malory, author of Le Mort d’Arthur) and reprises the title song, singing, “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/That was known as Camelot.” Arthur, his kingdom in ruins, realizes that while men may die, ideas do not.
The ideas that Jack and his brother Bobby fought for – inclusivity, alliance between nations, service to one's country, and our potential for innovation – did not die with him in 1963, nor with his brother Bobby. Last night, they returned through Bobby’s grandson, Joe Kennedy III, who, in responding to Trump's first State of the Union, gave perhaps the most significant introductory speech by a politician since Barack Obama’s keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
I, for one, was not expecting this. It seemed like Democrats had put Kennedy in a no-win scenario. No one from his party ever gave a memorable response to George W. Bush, and often, the chosen turned out to be political nonentities, like Jim Webb, who before his aborted presidential run in 2016, was once considered the future of the party. And under Obama, Republican respondents failed no better, with Marco Rubio infamously reaching for his water bottle. I thought Kennedy’s speech would most likely be a bland address running down the President’s talking points, and nobody would remember it 24 hours later. Boy, was I wrong.
In contrast to Trump’s doom-and-gloom outlook, Kennedy (who never mentioned the President by name) appealed to our best selves, something we haven’t seen enough of from politicians these days. He began by acknowledging the traumatic year we have all been through, acknowledging that the anger we all feel is bigger than mere partisanship. "This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us," he said. "They are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection."
Those who feared that choosing a white male would lead to a populist speech focused on the white working class need not have worried, as Kennedy movingly spoke of our drive for inclusivity. The most touching part of his speech came with this paragraph reflecting on our "American Story":
"It began the day our founding fathers and mothers set sail for a new world, fleeing oppression and intolerance. It continued with every word of our independence: the audacity to declare that all men are created equal, an imperfect promise for a nation struggling to become a more perfect union. It grew with every suffragette step, every freedom riders’ voice, with every weary soul we welcomed to our shores. And to all the Dreamers watching out there tonight, vamos a luchar for ustedes [trans. we will fight for you.]"
I confess that at this point, I teared up. By acknowledging the imperfections of our system, Kennedy reminded us that our project as a nation has been to do good on Jefferson's five most famous words, expanding their meaning as we include more and more people, as well as movements like "Me Too" and "Black Lives Matter," both of which he mentioned in the speech. Like Bobby and John, he made sure we were all part of his vision for our country, speaking to our resilience in the face of a callous administration:
"You wade through flood waters, battle hurricanes, brave wildfires and mudslides to save a stranger. You battle your own quiet battles every day. You drag your weary bodies to that extra shift so that your families won’t feel the sting of scarcity. You leave loved ones at home to defend our country overseas, patrol our neighborhoods at night. You serve. You rescue. You help. You heal. That, more than any law or leader, debate or disagreement, that is what drives us towards progress."
This isn't a cynical calculation. These words re-enforce the message we all need to hear right now: we are not powerless to change our destinies, and can work together to achieve our desired ends.
Of course, some on the fringes of the left were disappointed in Kennedy. The New Republic's Sarah Jones tweeted, "I don't understand why anyone would think sticking a Kennedy in an auto body shop is preferable to having a Latino or Muslim Democrat rebut Trump," ignoring that Kennedy, though he gave the speech in front of a car, delivered it from Dimon Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, Massachusetts. And some mistook the overly shiny lip gloss on the corners of his mouth for drool in a lame attempt to find a flaw. Fortunately, none of these criticisms have dogged him. You can't knock a good man down, and Kennedy's as good as they come, at least according to his former Stanford classmate Molly Knight:
Politicians like Kennedy are the future of the Democratic Party: conscientious, noble, and committed to bettering and protecting the lives of people who need it. His speech was not only a call to arms for the midterms and beyond, it recrystallized the ideals of the Camelot era, when young men and women got into public service because of his relatives. I can't say what the future holds for Joe Kennedy - but I know this will not be the last we hear from him.