King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are among the best known and most loved legends in western civilization. Arthur may have existed, but if he did, the legend has overshadowed the reality to the point that historians cannot point to a particular individual and say “Here is the man that inspired the legend of King Arthur.” However, much of what we perceive of medieval England is colored by the legend.
The reality is that castles are cold and damp. Raw sewage was tossed into the street. People rarely bathed – and smelled like it.
No wonder we prefer the legend. Legends are the way that we want to remember something or someone rather than how they really were. In legends, real people become taller, stronger, wiser and just plain more admirable and likeable than they ever could have been as real human beings. In America, we tend to make legends out of our presidents. Ambassadors, senators and others might get a mention, but it’s the president who is remembered as larger than life.
Washington and Lincoln were great men, but men nevertheless. Except for that one photogenic wart on Lincoln, we’ve removed all the imperfections. But you don’t have to look back over a century to see the legend being built. Let’s look at two more recent examples – John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
Kennedy’s main accomplishment was that sadly he was assassinated. To many of the Catholics who were thrilled to see the first Catholic president, he was essentially martyred and sainted. The Cuban Missile Crisis is sometimes quoted as his legacy, but in reality this was the response of the Soviet Union to the United States and NATO locating missiles almost within sight of Soviet leaders’ dachas. It was while Kennedy was president that the Berlin Wall was constructed. Kennedy also was instrumental in getting the United States involved in Viet Nam. JFK was known for his “indiscretions” with various women, although at that time the Press had a hands-off practice with regard to such issues.
Reagan was an actor, and not a particularly notable one. He was remembered for co-starring with a chimpanzee in “Bedtime for Bonzo.” He did realize that his forte was communications, not intellect. He was noted for surrounding himself with those who were smarter than him to do the actual planning, while he was the mouthpiece for the ideas. He started out as a Democrat and was not only a union member but president of the AFL-CIO affiliated Screen Actors’ Guild. He would not fit today’s conservative mold, with its results-be-damned-I’m-not compromising attitude. Apparently he counted Tip O’Neill – Speaker of the House of Representatives and a significant adversary – as a friend. He did successfully end the Cold War and saw the removal of the Ber,in Wall.
Yet both of these men are remembered fondly and larger than life. Why?
I propose it was because of the message each carried. It was not their actions so much as their belief.
Kennedy envisioned America as Camelot – the legendary center of King Arthur’s world. The musical “Camelot” was popular at the time and was one of JFK’s favorites. Camelot was a place of perfection, although it was for only “one brief shining moment.” Likewise, Kennedy was able to communicate his beliefs. In his inauguration he noted that “The torch has been passed to a new generation,” and advised Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Reagan spoke of optimism, of “Morning in America.” He also said, “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” Perhaps his most noted quote was at the Berlin Wall when he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Both men had, and shared their faith in a better America and a better world. Neither claimed that our system or our nation is perfect, but that it was worthy of belief.
Faith is a marvelous thing – and I’m not just talking about what we experience in church. If I have faith in the weather, I will plant my garden. If I have faith in the economy, I will invest. It is because I have faith in my children that I push them to do the best that they can in school, in athletics and in music.
Faith is the answer to the challenge, “Give me one good reason why I should…”
Faith today is what leads to legends tomorrow.