When John F. Kennedy was killed on November 22, 1963, I was barely 19 years of age.
I was a sophomore at Murray State University studying to be a lawyer and a politician. If five years earlier anyone would have told me that I’d be doing that, I would have probably drowned myself in the Cumberland River.
What happened in those intervening five years?
John F. Kennedy.
In those formative years when I came of age, I was beginning to realize that I would not be playing baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. A young and handsome face of a new president with a pretty wife named Jackie, with small children, began to appear in the newspapers and on TV. Looks are superficial of course. But, it caught my attention. Then, he spoke in ways which challenged me to a life of public service. That was not superficial.
It is probably unfair to judge the presidency of John F. Kennedy according to his truncated three years in office. But history takes what it finds. His record is spotty. On the domestic scene, he was inept in legislating his agenda. Too many exceptionally bright and youthful intellects as his helpers and—as House Speaker Sam Rayburn lamented—not enough “people who had run for sheriff.” He handled the embryonic Civil Rights movement with courage and decisive action. But, he left any meaningful legislation to his successor.
Internationally, his record is known for one huge blunder with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and the heroic success of his dealing with the Cuban missile crisis. The former he handled badly in the early months of his administration. The second one saved the world.
His personal life was fraudulent. Generally unknown to the public at the time, his adulterous dalliances belied the morally upright husband and father image his protectors portrayed to the media and admiring public.
He got us started to the moon and the lasting technology it spawned. “A trip to the stars,” he quoted Confucius, “begins with the first step. So, let us begin.” His Peace Corps still exists as the most emblematic accomplishment of the Kennedy years.
His brief record in the public spot light is open to debate and will be the grist of historians for as long as we have a republic.
This writing advances only one absolute about John F. Kennedy. He inspired my generation to public service. Many of us responded to his challenge, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
His youth, energy, and vibrant rhetoric impressed the young people of that era that politics and office holding wasn’t just for old men with dull, if competent, images.
In the final and impartial reckoning of John F. Kennedy, it is his language which is his legacy. The eloquence which appealed to “a new generation of Americans.”
The glitter and dazzle of that long past Kennedy administration has faded from view, but not from our memories. We realize that Camelot was not really Camelot. Maturity has taught us that there are no Camelots. There are no silver bullets, and problems are not solved by pretty faces and fancy words. We’ve learned that no one is either all good, nor all bad, including presidents of the United States. We learned that there is a place for the old and wise, just as much for the young and beautiful. We learned that government is not meant to solve all problems, but to afford all people with an equal chance to solve their own.
The legacy of John F. Kennedy is hope. He was a dealer in hope. Slowly vanishing from the American scene of public service today are old people like me. Those who would have followed another life, if the words of Kennedy had not convinced us that a lifetime commitment to giving, selflessness, sacrifice, justice, and an empathy with the helpless—represented a nobility worthy of pursuit. For those of us raised in strict, religious homes, public service became almost a holy cause. As the minister of my teenage years, Dr. Billy Gray Hurt wisely advised me, “You can be called to the ministry in fields other than preaching.” Those words along with the ringing summons of President John F. Kennedy turned my head toward the long and challenging road of politics and public service.
We will soon be gone from public service—we who are now Democrats, Republicans and Independents, and were summoned by his eloquence. “The torch is being passed to a new generation of Americans.” Hopefully, the words of John F. Kennedy will continue to inspire following generations, long after the People Magazine glamor and Jackie’s beauty fade from public remembrance. Hopefully, after looking past the man himself, his words will continue to be framed on office walls.
“With a good conscience our only sure reward, as history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love; asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”