- Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 November 2013 00:58
- Published on Wednesday, 20 November 2013 00:58
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Most of the people reading this column, or for that matter, most who might watch a TV program or a remembrance about the anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago, don’t remember the former President or his tragic death.
Others, like me, were only just old enough to recall it. I was five, and I remember that my Kindergarten class was making a cake. There was a radio playing, providing background music to the rather big mess we were making, and something was said over the air that caused our teacher to start crying. None of us understood it. I knew, with all the selfishness a five-year-old can muster, that my morning cartoons were off the air, and in their place were grim-faced anchormen and coverage of the President’s funeral. Everybody looked sad, and I was too when it was all explained to me.
Kennedy wasn’t in office long, not even three years, but his legacy, not just because of the tragedy of his murder, but rather something far more lasting, has endured. And it’s worth examining why. When you ask people what they find most compelling about the Kennedy Presidency, it isn’t legislation, executive orders, or budgets. Rather, it’s about inspiration. Many were deeply moved by his speeches and calls to service.
In 1961 at Rice University, while America’s space program was still in its early stages, Kennedy in a bold pronouncement committed America to landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. It was grand, audacious and oh, yes, we did it. He said, “…we choose to go the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It tapped the very essence of the American spirit.
The 1960’s were also the height of the Cold War. It was a dangerous era, but in his inaugural speech, not wanting to leave any doubt about where America stood, he said, in a famous phrase, “that we will bear any burden, meet any hardship … in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” It was a fateful call and it was one of the most profound statements about the direction of American foreign policy ever made.
And of course, his speech in front of the newly constructed Berlin Wall in 1963, where he said “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’,” clearly reaffirmed our nation’s policy of not deserting those whose liberty was indeed under challenge.
Much of what Kennedy wanted to accomplish was still languishing on Capitol Hill when he was assassinated. The Civil Rights Act, epic in its scope, was mired in committee. It took the deft hand of Lyndon Johnson to get it passed. But, it was Kennedy who gave voice to the vision of a more just future for all Americans.
John Kennedy was young, glamorous and inspiring. Few have managed to match his ability to make a point, frankly confront an issue, like his Catholic faith, which was a big issue in the 1960 campaign, or tell people about a serious and daunting crisis, as he did in his message to the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But, this is all more than 50 years ago. All that remains are distant memories, news clips, and speeches. However, his words and calls to service are as powerful today as it was half a century ago.