Five decades after the brutal murder of President Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, who had promised to keep America out of war in the election of 1916, became the first president to show a movie at the White House.
That movie, “Birth of a Nation,” directed by D.W. Griffith, was a wonder of technical achievement. It also portrayed the Ku Klux Klan in heroic terms, employed white actors in black face (presumably because the director refused to hire actual black actors) and generally denigrated the historic legacy of America’s 16th president.
America would end up entering the Great War in 1917, and in that war, it would emerge as just about the only real winner. Wilson dictated terms at Versailles, only to see the Senate reject the treaty that the notoriously racist president brought back home with him.
Much had happened in the 50 years following that fateful day on April 15, 1865, marked by stunning advances in technology that would never have been deemed possible then. Man had successfully flown through the air, could communicate through radio waves and had the ability to reconstruct historic events on film. And that was just the tip of the iceberg (let us not forget, three years earlier the Titanic sank after hitting such an iceberg).
But just as America was progressing technologically and economically, Americans hadn’t much progressed when it came to their attitudes, their prejudices and their laws. Systemic racism — not only toward blacks, but also Jews and Catholics — was the norm, so much so that Wilson could break barriers by premiering a movie that openly glorified the KKK.
In three days, America will note another 50th anniversary. The murder of John F. Kennedy still sears the nation’s conscience. Perhaps it’s because the assassination happened on film, perhaps because his election represented such a clear break from the past, perhaps because his death marked the official end of the innocence for our society. To be sure, we will note this anniversary with far more fanfare than that which marked the Lincoln assassination.
Interestingly, the technological progress we have witnessed over the past five decades has not kept pace with the social progress over the same time frame.
Sure, we now have the iPad and smartphones, and we have witnessed some breakthroughs in biological research.
But futurists from 1963 probably would be a tad bit disappointed as to where America is today, compared to where it was back then. Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon, and we did that, but we haven’t been back there in 40 years.
The social revolutions that swept America after the 35th president was gunned down have really transformed this country. Nobody could have imagined that an African-American would occupy the White House after beating a heavily favored female candidate in 2008.
Nobody would have imagined that 50 years later, the current hot social issue would be the right of homosexuals to legally marry. Nor would have anybody imagined that women would represent the majority of college graduates, or that the Democratic Party now has more minorities in its House caucus than white men.
We have come a long way since 1963. We have made progress in some areas, but we have fallen back in others.
Our national debt is staggering, thanks to social insurance programs passed in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. The social change hasn’t necessarily been uniformly positive. More people are born out of wedlock, as a percentage of the population, than any other time in our national history, and those kids tend to be poorer, less educated and more likely to end up either jobless or in prison. Obesity, not hunger, is now the biggest threat to national health. While some might say that is a first-class problem, it hits, in actuality, the poorest Americans the hardest.
Fifty years after Lincoln was shot, America was poised to be the one indispensable nation, the one superpower that could be counted on to bring order out of chaos. Five decades after Kennedy was murdered, can we make the same bold predictions? Are we better than we have ever been, or are we headed off in the wrong direction?
Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.
This post has been corrected from an earlier version.