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.