This Saturday (Nov. 22) will mark the 45th anniversary of the assassination in Dallas of President Kennedy. JFK's murder stripped the country both of innocence and confidence. His inauguration, in 1961, had signaled to millions generational change and excited young people, in particular, about the possibilities of public service.
Now, in 2008, we face the inauguration of another young President who, as Kennedy, has exemplified generational change and hopefulness. As his inaugural nears, below-the-surface concerns about President-elect Barack Obama's safety have broken into the open. Will Obama, as JFK, face personal danger?
Our first biracial president, Obama was not elected because of his race. But there remain a few diehards in the country who have difficulty accepting him on that basis. In 1963, it is now forgotten, the country not only was divided but angrily divided. A civil-rights revolution was progressing in the South; right-wing groups and individuals were challenging internationalism and an apparent easing of tensions with the Soviet Union. U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been spat upon and cursed in Dallas a few days ahead of JFK's fatal visit there.
Historically, assassinations and assassination attempts itake place in turbulent times and are visited in particular upon figures perceived as polarizing — Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968 and, unsuccessfully, Alabama Gov. George Wallace during his presidential candidacy a few years later. Other attempts were planned, and stopped, during those same years.
Obama drew huge campaign crowds. He inflames some ideological diehards simply because of his person. But his personality is not polarizing; his basic appeal has been one of crossing partisan and ideological boundaries. He wants to be a unifier rather than a divider. So Obama, as all presidents, will face danger but probably no more than any other.
There is one reality about the safety of leaders: Any determined individual or group can successfully attack any public figure if those involved are willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to do it. Secret Service and local law-enforcement officers carefully screen persons and groups in any community that a president is scheduled to visit. But, in the end, there is no way to stop an innocent-appearing person near a speaker's podium or along a motorcade route who might be a human bomb. Nor, as we saw in Dallas, can all potential threats be removed. Anywhere, anytime one or more figures can appear suddenly in windows with firearms, even if the buildings in question have been checked an hour beforehand.
The lesson of 9/11 applies as well to the security of presidents, vice presidents, corporate CEOs, entertainment figures and others in the public eye. No one is truly safe everywhere, all the time, from one or more people with evil plans. All we can do, now or anytime, is to look ahead as our leaders do. If something happens to them, we can have confidence that peaceful succession will take place and our system function. That brings us back, again, to the importance of having a vice president fully capable of serving as president on short notice. We thought that through in 2008.