When presidents were known by their three initials, perhaps none was more of a metaphor for a nation than John F. Kennedy.
It was a gray November day 50 years ago this week when my mother and I entered a drug store at the southwest corner of Fourth and Broadway. While we were eating at the soda fountain, a news report suddenly blared out of a radio on the other side of the counter. Quickly, my mother paid the bill and we left to go home. As soon as she could turn on our black-and-white Zenith set, one of her worst fears was confirmed.
President Kennedy was dead.
The days that followed were a requiem for him, and a dirge for our country. His body was carried by a caisson through the streets of Washington, but Jackie Kennedy was the symbol of what our nation had so instantly become — leaderless. The eternal flame on his grave on that private knoll in Arlington Cemetery appeared to be the only remaining image we had of a post-World War II leader who envisioned an American role beyond the atmosphere, beyond the Cold War and beyond the internal strife of the country. He gave us the Peace Corps and he kept us at peace when brinksmanship in Cuba brought mortality closer to our shores than any time since Pearl Harbor.
His tenure was termed “Camelot” because of its almost fairy-tale composite, but it was a tale that became tragedy as a nation learned what it was like to experience what other generations before them had known when Lincoln and McKinley were assassinated.
They named an airport, a stadium and a space center after him, as well as numerous schools. His agenda became an inheritance for Johnson, and a mantra for a nation that respected his unfulfilled prophecy as part of the unrequited moral development of the country — Medicare for the aged, Head Start for pre-schoolers and federal support for the shakiest of civil protections for African-Americans in the South.
Although we lost his mind in a moment, we kept his conscience for a generation. When his wicker rocking chair left the White House, there was something about that piece of furniture that told Americans of all parties and beliefs that it could have been a piece of furniture from just about any home in the country. To that end, he was like all of us, even if he went to Harvard and was born into the privilege of old Boston families.
His Roman Catholic faith tested the prejudice of voters who questioned, even in a presidential debate, if he would obey the Pope in making decisions about the country’s direction. He hurdled that barrier and appeared headed to a second term, even with a burgeoning war in Vietnam and turbulence in the Old South.
These were the 1960s, and this was the Kennedy legacy.
Yet it was incomplete, and it is that vacuum at the end of his first term and what might have been a second term that evokes thoughts from those who remember the time about what direction the country might have gone had he been spared. Would we have been out of Vietnam sooner? Would the civil strife manifested in Resurrection City riots at the Lincoln Memorial ever happened? Would Martin Luther King Jr. have had to march on Alabama highways and spend time in jail for a race’s civil disobedience?
Perhaps most poignant from that time is the thought of how he could have furthered the country to greater expectations and goals had he lived another five years.
Some presidents have almost been forgotten because they were mere administrators — presiders who ran the country, but never possessed the depth to lift it above war, poverty, indifference or prejudice. Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Kennedy did.
It’s that raising of the bar to a new level for a country that enabled Kennedy to resonate with a country where millions visit that eternal flame to this day.
It’s on anniversaries such as this when the sounds of “Taps” being played cannot be lonely enough, when pictures on coins of his image have value beyond money and when the sound of a Bostonian brogue strikes something within us that challenges us all to do a bit more for our country and to ask less from it.
Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.