Fifty years ago, I was entering university when a tragic event with worldwide repercussions occurred: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Many who lived through that day and the following three days can recall where they were, what they were doing and how they felt.
Besides the United States, Canadians probably felt the pain most vividly. JFK had visited us earlier in his presidency and described us as neighbors, allies, partners, and friends. No relationship was closer and more interdependent. He had effectively seduced us on that visit.
Since his death, numerous historical accounts have focused on the theories about his assassination, the myths about the Kennedy years in the White House—the so-called “Camelot” era—and the successes and failures of his presidency. Even after all these years, the JFK mystique still captivates our imagination.
JFK was, above all, a modern man. Elected president in 1960 at age 43, he was the first U.S. president to be born in the 20th century. Young, handsome and charismatic, he was the first president to do regular televised press conferences. With his natural charm, he was able to display vision, firmness and humor. By all accounts, he was a natural for the television age.
Above all, JFK knew how to use the power of words to inspire and to give direction. His words still resonate after all these years: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”; “Never fear to negotiate, but never negotiate out of fear”; “Wherever we may be, all free men are citizens of Berlin—Ich bin ein Berliner”; We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”When we look back at JFK’s years in office, it is worthwhile to look at the entire Kennedy–Johnson administration. There were some historic achievements—signing the 1963 Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, resolving the Cuban missile crisis, and establishing the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress and the space program. Later, President Lyndon B. Johnson chose to complete JFK’s vision of the New Frontier with his vision of the Great Society—those achievements included Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and the Civil Rights Act. All these were part of the JFK vision and make up his legacy.
Surely, there were events during the JFK administration that can be viewed in a negative light—such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Vietnam War. However, these were difficult times. The Kennedy–Johnson years will remain part of modern America and will serve as fodder for historians.
As we recall the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, it is well to remember what he represented to his generation, how he exercised power and how he inspired future generations. His idealism, his civility and his belief in civic engagement remain the legacy of his time—and, I would add, represent models for today and beyond.
This is the JFK I choose to remember.