I got my wisdom teeth pulled during the second week of June 2004. I had just finished the 11th Grade and had the procedure done before I really got going at my summer lifeguarding job. After the procedure I went home and settled into a chair in the family room of our house. I would spend the next couple days watching television, and while daytime television isn’t ordinarily all that interesting, this was no ordinary week; this was the week following the death of Ronald Reagan.
Just a couple weeks earlier I had concluded my American History AP exam so I thought I knew a thing or two about American history and politics. I knew that Reagan had been President for most of the 1980s, that he had been reelected by a huge margin in 1984 and that Reaganomics was named after him (although I really didn’t know what this meant). The reason for this is not because I had a poor teacher or anything; rather, it is because Ronald Reagan occupied a place in the netherworld of history as it was taught to me and my peers.
Because I was born midway thru Reagan’s second term, I couldn’t have possibly remembered any of his presidency, and because his last major public appearance was in 1994 (when I was in the 1st Grade), I understandably had no real memories of Reagan at all. However, since his presidency happened so near to the time that I was born and went through my schooling it was not really covered in my history classes (I believe that the Vietnam War was the last thing covered on the AP Exam that year).
There is some point where history catches up to the present; but if you are studying the present then you are definitively not studying history. In the lives of my parents and teachers, Ronald Reagan was an aspect of the present. They remembered his presidency well because it happened during their adult lives. For them, Morning Again in America wasn’t some historical relic (like the commercial is for me now) but a slogan as important and relevant as Change We Can Believe In.
So there I was, with my cheeks swollen up to the point where I couldn’t chew scrambled eggs, watching the likes of Margaret Thatcher and George H.W. Bush give eulogies to the former President. Without much else that I could do, I was transfixed by the endless processions and events. It seemed to me that Reagan had the longest funeral services of all time, and I just didn’t really have any basis for understanding it.
Earlier this summer, as everybody knows by now, Michael Jackson died. When I first saw the news reports come up on my computer I was not too surprised at all. Sure it was before his time, but from what I had seen of this guy in the past, nothing could surprise me. Although I knew that he had been a hugely successful musician years ago, all I really knew when I thought of Michael Jackson were three things: 1) His face looked incredibly bizarre, 2) He probably sexually abused children, or at least had weird things going on at ‘Neverland Ranch’, 3) He once held one of his children over the balcony railing at a hotel with a blanket covering the child.
That is just about it.
While I had been surprised years ago at the outpouring of grief during the Reagan funerals, that seemed acceptable because he the President of the United States. Whether you agreed or disagreed with his principles and policies, he was probably the face of the 1980s. . . or was he? As I quickly began to realize, Michael Jackson was one of the most transcendent musicians of all time, and was incredibly important to American culture. Before he became the crazy guy that my generation will remember him as, he was the musician of the 1980s.
In the weeks after his death, people talked about his music in similar ways to how they had talked about the death of Ronald Reagan. The weekend after his death I visited a friend at the University of Iowa and every bar we went to played Michael Jackson left and right. By the end of the weekend I had heard so much Jackson that I felt compelled to be one of the millions of Americans who purchased The Essential Michael Jackson on iTunes. For the most part, I just didn’t understand it.
Unlike many of the musical artists of the 1960s and 1970s (and even before that) Michael Jackson’s music had not become classics by the time I was born. It was too new to be considered classic but because it was not the newest material of the day I was never really exposed to it in the way that older Americans had been. Maybe this is just the way it works with pop music (we’ll have to wait and see if anybody remembers Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers 20 years from now) or maybe it is because the height of Michael Jackson’s popularity was just something that I missed culturally and was never able to see in a historical context because I was too close to it. Michael Jackson’s importance was caught in the same netherworld of history for me that Ronald Reagan’s was, and I therefore couldn’t understand it.
When Senator Kennedy gave this endorsement, my initial thought was: Who is this man, and why does anybody care? All I really knew about Kennedy was that he was the brother of President John and would-be President Robert. Even as an astute student of Political Science, I couldn’t really understand why his endorsement meant so much more than that of any other senator. There was really no way I could possibly understand why this endorsement mattered as much as it did because I didn’t live through the tragedies of the 60s and I hadn’t been alive nor aware of Kennedy’s role as a leader for liberalism in the years since.
That’s why, for the first time in months, I turned on MSNBC today. I read more articles, columns, and obituaries than I had on any previous day this summer trying to grasp what was so important about Ted Kennedy. My mind was transfixed on what was so important about this man that news literally came to a standstill because of his death. Like Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan before him, Ted Kennedy was an important part of American history and culture that was too close to me to be taught or dissected but too far away for me to remember. Ted Kennedy’s importance existed in the netherworld of history for me.
Despite the fact that I can’t attest to what it is, Ted Kennedy undoubtedly left an imprint on American politics. His longevity in the United States Senate is longer than the combined years that our last three Presidents have served in major elected office (as Senator, Governors, and Presidents). Even if all of the glorifications over the past day have been grossly exaggerated (which I doubt), he was still one of the most influential Senators in history, but will history remember him?
Kennedy’s was probably more important not because of his political influence, but rather because of his place in American culture. He was the last son of the great American political dynasty. Americans loved the Kennedys and he served as the embodiment of that throughout his life. His endorsement of Barack Obama was not important because he was a long serving Senator; it was important because he was the brother of Jack and Bobby and he was able to pass the torch on from them to Obama.
Ted Kennedy was an incredibly important American both culturally and politically, but for my generation he rather unfortunately might not be remembered much at all. Michael Jackson left an undeniable impression on American culture with his music and craziness and will be remembered by my generation for it. Ronald Reagan will someday take up a chapter or two in American history textbooks. Ted Kennedy, while possibly just as important to our history and culture as either man, might never escape the netherworld of history in my mind like the other two have; and that’s just the way it is.