Folks my age and beyond typically remember vividly where they were 50 years ago today. John Kennedy’s assassination shook our lives. The youngest elected American president – with his brilliance, wit, charisma, cool determination, intriguing accent and matinee idol looks – was silenced in a moment none thought possible to have come.
I was a seventh-grader in a small Catholic school in Dallas, so the wound seemed to sear even more deeply. It was eerie when the nuns hustled us into chapel for the rosary, weeping, but refusing to explain the cause. I can re-conjure Nov. 22, 1963, as if it were yesterday.
Kennedy’s legacy, of course, is more muddled now. The star is bruised, the aura battered. The faithless and reckless womanizing. The easy embrace of risk. The hidden medical conditions. The tragic unfolding course in Vietnam. Jack Kennedy was neither saint, nor prophet; neither Lincoln nor Mandela. His gold was alloyed with baser properties.
But the Kennedy hold is tenacious. Polls regularly list him among the highest-regarded and most fascinating presidents. His portraits remain on living room walls, including my mother’s, here and across the globe. Politicians of both parties labor to cite him. The dynasty he launched remains our closest substitute for royalty. His mark on American culture thrives after a half-century.
Part of the reason, no doubt, is style. Actors can’t come close to the magic. They should stop trying. Kennedy also made public life seem ennobling. Imagine that. He elevated gallantry. He lifted the country from a gray tide of mediocrity. He banished the impression we were played out, fearful of change, daunted by the future.
His self-confidence emboldened. His eloquence was unparalleled – both passionate and lyrical. It was also disciplined, not self-indulgent (like Bill Clinton’s). He didn’t take the podium unprepared or indifferent. Not since Churchill had an orator’s words so marked our consciousness.
Kennedy’s humor, frequently self-deprecating, was unmatched by any president of the century. Tapes of his press conferences are sold to this day. He demonstrated remarkable capacity for growth, becoming a statesman before our eyes. He appeared taller than he actually was, perhaps because he reached higher. He took us with him as he did.
But it wasn’t just style.
It can be both illuminating and demoralizing to compare Kennedy’s politics with our own. Our electoral campaigns seem like concentrated pandering showcases. Republicans offer endless regimes of tax elimination. Democrats counter with expanded benefit packets. Kennedy derided such ventures as “more promises to this group or that, more assurances of a golden future, where taxes are always low, subsidies ever high.”
The New Frontier, he countered, was “not a set of promises, [but] a set of challenges.” It sums up “not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” The “rich must be willing to yield up more of their privileges to a common good.” His was a race between public interest and private comfort; national greatness and national decline. His call was to a “long twilight struggle against the common enemies of man – tyranny, poverty and war itself.”
Knowing the wounds and losses of war close hand, his sense of the use of American power differed from ours as well. He became a singular commander-in-chief by refusing to invade a country with nuclear weapons 90 miles off our shore. Like President Reagan, he often echoed John Winthrop’s portrait of an American “city upon a hill.” But while Reagan envisioned us as the envy and the terror of the world, Kennedy emphasized the responsibility triggered by our fortune. We must be “worthy of our power and exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint.” From those to whom so “much is given, much is required.” It’s impossible to imagine him boasting, like the schoolyard bully, “bring it on.”
Finally, Kennedy insisted the work of our national mission was not, as yet, complete. His patriotism demanded we “close the gaps between our words and our deeds.” He was existentially unwilling to accept a crippled status quo. He sought to lift our sights and our capacities: pushing claims of human liberty “as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American constitution.” He fostered a contagious idealism born in the belief that, with our own hands, we can craft a better future. Even five decades later, many remain unable to shake the dream.
My granddaddy, an old school Southern Baptist, told me, when Kennedy was elected, “We might survive this, but the country will never be the same.” Right he was.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law and director of UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.