By Susanna Rodell
Forty-five years ago on Nov. 22, my heart broke.
I was 15, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy shattered my world. All that optimism and all that idealism that the young president had harnessed were suddenly left with nowhere to go.
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson picked up the reins, but that didn't help my teenage grief. The ensuing years didn't help, either: Vietnam. Martin Luther King. Bobby Kennedy. Watergate. The brief respite of the Carter administration, spoiled by the first gas crunch and the Iran hostage crisis. Eight years of Reaganism and the triumph of government-as-enemy ideology.
For a brief three years, from 1960 to 1963, I felt pretty good being American. I planned to join the Peace Corps. I loved my president. The world seemed wide open.
Obviously, some of my sunny world view was youthful naivete; in later years I was able to see JFK for the flawed leader he was. But that reflection didn't — and doesn't — cancel out those three years in which America felt good about itself and reached out to the world, briefly harnessing the hearts of a generation.
I'd almost forgotten how that time felt, until November. My four children reminded me. Three of them volunteered for Barack Obama, two of them in North Carolina. The photos on Facebook show them partying Election Night in the streets of Greensboro with excited young people of different colors, hugging each other, giving high-fives, dancing in the rain.
My eldest daughter spoke of her 5-year-old son, saying how great a gift it was that he would come of age with this man's face in his mind as the first connection with the word "president."
I felt my heart beginning to thaw. And speaking to others my age in the ensuing short weeks, I hear similar sentiments.
We are the heartbroken generation. Ever since that day 45 years ago, we have been schooled by tragedy and disappointment: violence depriving us of inspired leaders, feckless ones leading us into disaster and cynicism.
Even Bill Clinton, our first boomer president, let his demons rule him. I'd seen the same dynamics at work through the years in so many of us: ideals eroded by ego and libido. Starting somewhere in the late 1970s, I came into the habit of repeating to myself what I never said aloud: "We've failed."
What happened to the late 1960s energy that propelled us into the streets to fight against a disastrous war, that had us briefly socializing with people of all races and backgrounds and not caring where our friends came from? What happened to the instinct for service over self?
Retreat. With no place to harness the idealism, it splintered in two. In one direction lay individual salvation: back to graduate school, job, kids, the consolations of consumerism. In the other, just plain silliness, the die-hards of one stripe or another backing into their niches. A lot of us shoved our idealism into the back of our hearts, put away in a drawer like grandmother's pearls, hoping one day for an appropriate occasion.
We had been arrogant. No question. We knew we were right — about war, about the environment, about racism, about the dangers of unfettered markets, about the inequities of our health-care system, about so many things. The country, it seemed, wasn't listening.
Part of that arrogance, though, was our need for speed. We expected our vast, complicated country to turn around fast, and when it didn't, we felt defeated. Understandable, since human lives and generations are so short.
Maybe it just took longer than we planned. Maybe those assassinations and descents into our uglier nature were just temporary setbacks.
Is it going to be OK again to look after each other? To project something other than arrogance onto the world? To have thoughtful leaders who talk to other leaders? Can we share rather than hoard?
Can we be led by a man who embodies not just the diversity of America, but of the world? Can we put this 45-year-old nightmare behind us?
My kids tell me: Yes, we can.
Rodell is a journalist and a former member of the Courant's editorial board. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.