Saturday, August 26, 2006

From the New to the Final Frontier...

So much had happened, so much had changed in the thousand days of the Kennedy administration. What Kennedy contributed to the soul of the future went beyond these great issues. He brought imagination and intelligence into the public arena, and suddenly it was stylish to be smart. Kennedy was intensely curious and persistently ironic, with an educated judgment, a respect for complexity and a need for large ideas. Kennedy’s press conferences were a revelation of erudition and wit. The emphasis on intelligence in the Kennedy government provided a new legitimacy to the life of the mind. Suddenly the egghead was in, and the intellectual was sexy.

Kennedy was also the first President since Teddy Roosevelt to promote physical fitness, and though a sudden fad for the “fifty mile hike” died quickly, the general idea of fitness and “vigor” became part of the Kennedy image. The Kennedys were often photographed sailing, and the Kennedy clans’ touch football games became legendary.

“Jack” and the beautiful Jackie Kennedy, their children Caroline and John-John: they were in every sense the First Family. How Jackie dressed changed how women looked, and connected a larger portion of America to European fashion, as well as making European style more acceptable across an increasingly affluent but still provincial America.

Above all there was a sense of youthfulness—of “the young in spirit, regardless of age,” as he said in his call for explorers of the New Frontier.

This was the coming of age for Gene Roddenberry’s generation. I could find nothing on the record about GR’s views on JFK, but it’s not hard to figure out what they might be. Apart from the general attitudes they shared with others in their generation (and the recreation of sailing, which became GR’s replacement for flying), there is ample evidence in GR’s later work of a convergence with Kennedy’s views, particularly the ones from 1963 detailed above. From the New Frontier and the space program, to Civil Rights, efforts to address poverty and disease, and the attitudes towards peace outlined in the American University address, to more subtle thoughts about such matters as exploration without exploitation tucked into other speeches---it all could be considered part of the blueprints for the Star Trek future.

There has never been, and they may never be again, a national trauma as intense and lingering as the sudden taking away by assassination of this young President in November 1963. From the first news reports on Friday to after the state funeral on Monday, America stopped. Stores were shuttered, and storefronts draped in black, all product images replaced by wreathed portraits of the fallen President. By 1963 almost every home in the U.S. had at least one TV set, and there was nothing else broadcast that weekend but related news, including the responses of people around the world, interspersed with Kennedy speeches and interviews. 95% of the American audience watched the funeral.

The sadness, the attempts to cope and accommodate what had happened, went on for months and years. Arguably the effects of Kennedy’s assassination never ended. But at the time, those who admired Kennedy, his words and his public persona, had to find ways to honor and absorb them in their own lives and work.

It was about four months after President Kennedy’s life was erased that Gene Roddenberry had roughed out in some sixteen pages his idea for a television series about the future, called Star Trek.

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