Related: Catholic issues, Civil & Human Rights, Political Issues, Politics

JFK: What He Did For His Country


Kennedy 2President and Mrs. Kennedy Arrive in Dallas, November 22, 1963
Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

November 22, 1963.

Each generation lays claim to shattering dates that “changed everything” or so it seemed in the moment.  We remember September 11, 2001 with fresh horror each year when we see those burning towers all over again.  Our parents and grandparents tell us what it was like on December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor entered the national imagination as ground zero of World War II, the “…date which will live in infamy.”

November 22, 1963 is the date the Baby Boomers remember with relentless precision and endless fascination.  “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is the question that never grows old no matter that half a century has now intervened.  We’ve been talking about John Fitzgerald Kennedy for longer than he lived.  Why do we keep coming back to the icon, the image, the myth and mystery of JFK?

(See Trinity’s website “Trinity Remembers JFK” with alumnae videos)

My brother John wrote yesterday that, “It’s extremely alarming to be talking knowledgeably about something that happened fifty years ago.”  When we were kids in 1963, “50 years ago” would have been 1913 — before our parents were even born!  Before World War I!!  And yet we Boomers go on about things that happened 50 years ago as if they are still quite current.  Is this just narcissism or is there genuine meaning in our preoccupation with the Kennedy mystique?

Kennedy familyFirst Family, 1962
Photograph by Cecil Stoughton, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

President Kennedy’s brief 1,000 days in office is a bright chalkstripe across American cultural history.  The impact of the Kennedy years was less about political achievements, which were modest during his three year tenure, and more about social change and human advancement, which was huge.  In his inauguration address, JFK captured the essence of generational change when he declared:

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

Kennedy and IkePresidents Kennedy and Eisenhower, 1961
Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

“Born in this century” was a riveting concept for a president in 1961 when Kennedy was inaugurated.  All of his predecessors were born in the 19th Century, stalwart men who epitomized the mindsets and traditions of the ruling classes of the early 20th Century.  Truth be told, John F. Kennedy was a son of precisely the same mindsets and traditions, perhaps more so because of his great family wealth.  But his youth (he was just 43 when elected president), superficial appearance of vigor (he suffered chronic illness, but like President Franklin Roosevelt, he found ways to hide it from the public), and glamorous style (carried so well by Jackie Kennedy) proved a sharp contrast to the older, staid image of his immediate predecessor President Dwight Eisenhower.    And while his opponent in the 1960 election Richard Nixon was only four years older, Nixon’s personal appearance and personality made him seem much older and more sedate than the charming, witty, urbane Jack Kennedy.

Kennedy Ivory CoastDinner for the President of the Ivory Coast and Madame Houphouet-Boigny, 1962
Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Kennedy thought big and spoke boldly, and in his large view of the American agenda at the threshold of the 1960’s burst forth with powerful optimism and unyielding conviction in the belief that America was the best, brightest hope for all people on earth.  Today some critics would probably denounce his inauguration speech as a good example of “American exceptionalism,” but in 1960, with the flames of Old Europe still dying down and the long gray days of the Cold War settling in, Kennedy was a startling flash of light offering a glimpse into a much better future.

Kenndy press confPresident Kennedy at a News Conference, 1962
(When was the last time a president had fun at a news conference?)
Photograph by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Students of history certainly can find failure, frustration and fear in Kennedy’s three years in office.  The Berlin Wall went up, a totalitarian gash across the fragile post-World War II peace.  The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States to the brink of nuclear disaster; but the threat abated thanks in large measure to the rational steely-eyed resolve of Kennedy and his team to find a way to keep the peace.  Knowing all that we know today about the follies of the CIA and the intelligence community, we can understand the Bay of Pigs disaster as something much larger and more insidious than a presidential misjudgment.  In the same way, as a result of inept intelligence work, the assassination of the Diem brothers in Vietnam triggered the escalation of that war shortly before Kennedy’s own assassination.

But domestically, President Kennedy was laying the foundation for some of the greatest triumphs in American history.  He would not live to see the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but his philosophical and political commitments to human rights and civil rights paved the way for President Lyndon B. Johnson to achieve enactment of that legislation.  He created the Peace Corps, one of the best and most enduring legacies of the Kennedy Era to the world.  He pushed NASA and the space program to work toward the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, an achievement he did not live to see.   The space program spawned countless innovations and advancements that benefit contemporary life in so many ways.  His election also brought Catholics in from the political margins, signalling the hope of a political time when people with different characteristics might join the ruling class.

Perhaps most important, President Kennedy enlarged the national imagination, expanded our world view and made it acceptable to be an idealist when thinking about the purpose of government.

On November 22, 1963, I was sitting in a fifth grade classroom at St. Margaret’s School in Narberth, Pennsylvania.  We noticed the sisters whispering on the corridor, and then we said prayers, and school was dismissed early.  As we trudged in our lines down Essex Avenue, I heard a boy somewhere in the back of the line say, “President Kennedy was shot!”

I could not believe what he said.  I stopped by the soda fountain at Davis’s 5&10 (now Mapes) and listened as the radio announcer said that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas.  Everyone was solemn.

I walked home and found the boys already there watching TV.  Mom was very upset.  She said the president was dead.  What I remember most is how upset she was even though she and Dad were stalwart Republicans and really didn’t like President Kennedy.  But they were Americans first, and they knew that the assassination was a time of grave danger for the nation and a great tragedy for the Kennedy family and all who knew him.  Uncharacteristically, they let us watch television nonstop for the next four days.

Kennedy plane

Johnson swearing in

Top:  President Kennedy’s coffin removed from the planeBottom:  President Johnson takes oath of office on the plane back from Dallas
with Jackie Kennedy beside him (right) and Lady Bird Johnson (left)

Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

By the time the president’s plane landed in Washington that night, President Lyndon B. Johnson had taken charge.  I remember watching as Mrs. Kennedy emerged from the back end of the plane with her husband’s casket.  This was all in black and white, and long silences filled the screen as we watched dimly lit images.  There was something so simple and poignant about watching history on television in the days before we had so many talking heads and screaming counterpoints and endless cuts to interviews with more talking heads.  From a television perspective, the best part of those four days was the simplicity and respectfulness of the coverage, something every producer today should study.

President Kennedy lit up a pathway to change and growth for our nation.  He did so with wit, grace, style and steel when necessary.  He was not perfect, but he knew how to be a leader when it counted.   Our national quest to reignite that spark continues.

Kennedy coffinAbbie Rowe. White House Photographs.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: