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Barnett: JFK's call to action is needed now

Editorial page editorNovember 16, 2013 

The first and only time I saw John F. Kennedy in person I was on my father’s shoulders.

It was during a campaign stop in 1960 when Kennedy spoke at a shopping center in our town of Willow Grove, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.

I don’t remember seeing anything of Kennedy. I remember the occasion only because my father had lifted me. I was nearly 5 and had outgrown the days when he carried me. His reach and lift surprised me enough that I always remembered it. I knew that it must have mattered greatly to him that I saw above the crowd the distant figure he had come to see.

It was through my father that I always saw Kennedy. And my father, like many of his generation, saw a bit of himself in Kennedy. My father was an Irish-American, next to the youngest in a large Catholic family of eight, a Democrat, a veteran of World War II, though he never left the States. But the similarities ended there. His father died when he was a young boy and his mother raised her family in Philadelphia with impressive grit. He went to college on the GI Bill and then law school, but he started with nothing and all he got afterward he spent on his wife and seven children, all of whom he put through college.

My father didn’t idolize John F. Kennedy, but he considered him rare and true. He kept a collection of Kennedy half dollars in his top bureau drawer and a magazine portrait of the late president hung for many years in our wood-paneled den.

My father ignored the push to reassess Kennedy, to blame him for Vietnam, to claim he was martyred and overrated. But I do recall my oldest brother as a contrary teenager echoing those claims in a living room conversation. My father debated him with mounting frustration and finally pounded the arms of his chair and declared that Kennedy “was one of the greatest figures to rise on the American horizon since Jefferson.”

Later, when the incessant and exaggerated tales of Kennedy’s sexual adventures seemed to eclipse all other images of him, I asked my father what he thought. He seemed resigned to the knowledge that the president he so admired was also a man of significant flaws. But he also said the flaws should be kept in perspective. He said a person’s sexual conduct, however absorbing it may be as gossip and fodder for books, is a small part of what happens in a lifetime. So much more time is spent working and the accomplishments of a life – not the regrettable lapses – should be the measure of who a person was.

My father died in 2006, more than 40 years after that day in Dallas closed the New Frontier and altered the future of that “new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

The new generation grew old without him, but haunted by him and loyal to him and committed to living up to what he asked of them. Many of that generation’s children came to know Kennedy not for who he was, but for what he meant to their parents. A New York Times story last week on how textbooks now take a dimmer view of JFK noted that his greatest support in polls comes “from people 43 to 63 who were children or not yet born when he was murdered.”

I wish the handsome, young president had been a saint like the icon we hung on the wall. He was not. But with his courage in war and his eloquence and grace in a time of dangerous peace he gave his generation the gift of confidence.

Those who weren’t there when Kennedy “rose on the American horizon” or whose tribe, ethnic or political, did not keep alive his story may never understand why his grave is marked by a flame and why his light still flickers in those old enough to remember.

Yes, the American Camelot was a myth, but Kennedy was not. He really did lift the gaze of a generation and inspire thousands to enter public service. His legacy is not found in a list of legislation, but it may indeed endure in a world spared nuclear war. He lives in the lives he changed through his belief that America should be about making a better world and making its ideals real through action.

We live in a time when political selfishness masquerades as unbending principle. Those hostile toward government scoff at the power of idealism to captivate a generation and motivate a nation. As Kennedy comes back to us in film and voice on the 50th anniversary of his death, it is embarrassing to compare his optimism and call to action with our angry divisions and gridlock.

The man who roused a complacent nation would have taken the fight to those who obstruct it now. As he said in that long ago campaign speech in Willow Grove, “I have been in the Congress for 14 years, and I know all about the record then, but I have yet to hear of one single original piece of new, progressive legislation of benefit to the people, suggested and put into a fact by the Republican Party.”

Not much has changed, but still we yearn for a political call that uplifts us. Perhaps as we reflect on Nov. 22, 1963, we should think not only of the man lost, but the generations he stirred and how we can once more summon our better selves and take up his pledge “to get the country moving again.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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