Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty years later, our loss is still felt

It is a Friday again. It is Nov. 22 again. The insulation of half a century — longer than our youthful hero lived — is stripped away as we remember that terrible day of shock, quashed dreams and lost inspiration.

For my generation — the surging youth cadre that the young president inspired and challenged — the memories are clear. We all can recall how we heard the news. For me, it was a public address announcement at the end of a routine high school Friday. The principal passed along the news without emotion or inflection, just the flat, neutral statement of an educator: President Kennedy was killed. I rode the bus home that afternoon trying to put the news into context. It must have happened in Washington, I thought. I had not read anything about a political trip to Texas. Once I got home, I filled the emptiness inside me with news gleaned from non-stop television coverage, which was nearly unprecedented at the time (only manned space launches and political conventions had warranted such coverage), and fat newspapers filled with news of the crime. I ran to the television as I returned from church that Sunday and turned it on in time to watch, in what is now called "real time," the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Fifty years have given us time to reconsider Kennedy, beyond the emotions of 1963, and to learn that he was not angelic or flawless. He was a man with faults, like all of us. He was imperfect after all. He was sickly and kept private secrets. Historians have pushed him lower and lower in the ranking of presidents. His legislative achievements are scant. He was not the negotiator or legislator that his successor was.

But even with the perspective of 50 years, Kennedy stands tall in so many intangible ways. He embodies the term often used to describe him in his day: charisma. He was charming and disarming. His wit was as quick as a stand-up comic's, and he could turn a press conference into a situation comedy as reporters, some admiring, some hostile, tried and failed to get the best of the young president.

What we lost in Dallas that fateful day was inspiration. Watch Kennedy's Berlin speech or his inaugural address. Watch his news conferences or his brilliantly disarming response to Lyndon Johnson's veiled criticism at the 1960 Democratic Convention. The Berlin speech — brief and brilliantly using repetition ("Let them come to Berlin!") — is a lesson in rhetorical technique. His inaugural was a call to Cold War militancy but also a call for national service. Kennedy knew the power of words like few presidents before or since (only Lincoln and Reagan come close). He knew leadership required inspiration, and he inspired a nation, especially young people, in a way that has not been reached since. In his inaugural, he challenged Americans to ask "what you can do for your country." He challenged Congress to put a man on the moon within a ridiculously short time period. He boldly proposed cutting taxes and even more boldly cracked open the door toward peaceful negotiations to end the Cold War.

What would have changed if the FBI and Secret Service had done their jobs and kept a pathetic assassin away from the motorcade route? We might have avoided the tragedy of Vietnam, but that is not a certainty. We might not have achieved an end to legal segregation as soon as we did (JFK did not have the legislative skills of LBJ), but it would have come. We might have avoided the cynicism and the youthful rebellions of the 1970s. Kennedy, who bridged the divide between fiscal conservatism and a liberal world view and human rights, might have reshaped American politics.

On this 50th anniversary, as we are immersed in the verbal and visual reliving of those horrific days, the loss we felt so long ago is still a loss. The youthful confidence, the "great vigor" of a young president, the challenge to serve others and not think only of yourself cannot be recovered.

And now we, the last ones to remember him, are fading into the sunset, our inspiration soured by sarcasm and the next generation unable to understand the depth of our loss.

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