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Fintan O’Toole: Biden is a Kennedy-era figure come back to heal a wound that never closed

US president-elect is a second coming of the lost moment of the Kennedys

US president-elect Joe Biden “knows that the future does not belong to him. But with his late, last reiteration of the Kennedy moment, a part of the past does.” Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

He is in his late 70s. He grew up in white middle America in the postwar years and came to political consciousness amid the promise of a generational shift towards a more progressive and optimistic idea of what the United States should be. He was in his early 20s when John F Kennedy was murdered in 1963. And in 2020 he came back from the dead with an extraordinary triumph.

I’m thinking, of course, of Bob Dylan and of the eerie way his album Rough and Rowdy Ways, released in June, intersects with this point in political time. It is framed as a haunting, Dylan speaking to us from beyond the grave. But it is itself haunted.

The revenant is JFK. In the long caoineadh, Murder Most Foul, we hear an old man who never got over that day in Dallas. He keeps reliving it. In an act of possession that only he could get away with, Dylan becomes JFK, “Ridin’ in the back seat, next to my wife/ Heading straight on into the afterlife.”

John F Kennedy in Dallas with his wife Jackie on the day of his assassination in 1963. File photograph: AP

There is, at the song’s heart, a visceral keening, the cry of a grief beyond words: “Wolfman, oh wolfman, oh wolfman, howl.” The reference is to the DJ Wolfman Jack, but Dylan makes it like King Lear howling for his dead daughter, a cry of pure desolation that resounds through the universe.

Dylan’s wail is the deep soundtrack of Joe Biden’s ascent to the presidency. Biden’s surfeit of grief is private and intimate, but the public side of it is that same endless return of those same ghosts. Dylan’s lament is that “the soul of a nation been torn away”. On Saturday night, president-elect Biden promised to “restore the soul of America”. Both men think of themselves as visitors from the land of lost souls.

The power of Dylan’s great dirge is its utter, existential bleakness. His inconsolability suggests the impossibility of consolation

Biden is not so much Irish as Kennedyish. Before he visited Ireland as vice-president in 2016, arrangements were being made for the conferring of an honorary doctorate at TCD. The gown for the ceremony is a rather startling shade of pink. Biden’s people indicated his unhappiness. TCD pointed out that JFK had worn it when he got his honorary doctorate in 1963. The objections instantly evaporated.

Irish Catholic saviour

Biden is the second coming of the global Irish Catholic saviour. The Kennedys embodied a history of pain and defeat transformed into shining optimism, then darkened back into grief again by murders most foul, first Jack, then Bobby. Biden is the afterlife of that tragedy, come back to heal a wound that never closed.

Bob Dylan. "Dylan’s wail is the deep soundtrack of Joe Biden’s ascent to the presidency." 

But here’s another moment of history. In all the turmoil of the presidential election, it was easy to remain unaware of a potent absence – no Kennedys. This is the first election since 1946 in which no member of the Kennedy dynasty was elected to Congress. Amy Kennedy tried, but failed, to win a House seat in New Jersey. Almost three-quarters of a century of history has come to an end.

Given the family’s mostly benign and sometimes magnificent contribution to the cause of decency and equality, there’s a sadness in this. But maybe there’s also something apt and propitious. Maybe something is not just ending. Maybe it is being fulfilled.

What was killed in the 1960s cannot merely be resuscitated. But it can be laid to rest by honouring its frustrated promise

The power of Dylan’s great dirge is its utter, existential bleakness. His inconsolability suggests the impossibility of consolation. America is stuck in a moment it can’t get out of. It is forever driving along in that big black limousine, through Dealey Plaza into a dark underpass.

It does not have to be so. The foul murders of the 1960s – JFK, RFK, MLK – violently shunted American history off the track of justice and equality. But it can get back on track.

Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris: File photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Listen to Kamala Harris on Saturday night. She spoke of “grief, sorrow and pain”. But she also asserted the power “to see what can be, unburdened by what has been”.

Hard-won unburdening

When you look at Biden you see the burden of what has been, not just in his family life but in his life as a public man. But in Harris you see a hard-won unburdening. She knows history deeply but chooses to wear it lightly.

Dylan says: we can never get over it. Harris says: we have to get over it. And Biden bridges these feelings: even if we can’t get over it, we can get through it.

What was killed in the 1960s cannot merely be resuscitated. But it can be laid to rest by honouring its frustrated promise. It must be finished in both senses. America cannot be done with it until it has completed what was begun in those years, the transcendence of the histories of slavery, violence and rapacity.

That will be, as Harris articulated so powerfully on Saturday, all struggle. It has always been so, and it always will be so, in a democracy that is “only as strong as our willingness to fight for it”.

Biden knows that the future does not belong to him. But with his late, last reiteration of the Kennedy moment, a part of the past does. He cannot change what happened in the 1960s, but he can alter its meaning by showing that it is not doomed to repeat itself. He can silence the wolfman’s howl of everlasting despair.

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Fintan O’Toole: Biden is a Kennedy-era figure come back to heal a wound that never closed

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