I was eight when he was elected in 1960 and I was becoming aware of what a president did and America’s role in the world. The Bay of Pigs, the space race, civil rights, and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 were events that I was learning to grasp as part of my life, and President Kennedy was the face of American leadership. And on that awful Friday afternoon in November 1963 when a classmate casually informed me “Kennedy’s dead,” I knew that the world was changed.
In the fifty-three years since he died, the world has not advanced as he envisioned. Communism, the great menace of his time, has been replaced by terrorism and paranoia; war is still marching across the planet, and we have turned from the noble hopes of Kennedy’s New Frontier to boorish and ignorant self-indulgence. I’m glad he didn’t live to see this world, the White House occupied by a man who represents exactly the opposite of everything President Kennedy stood for. (Even JFK knew to keep his legendary libido out of the press.)
Historians have debated his legacy, his mistakes, his human failings, and the things left undone. As I’ve previously noted, speculation is rife as to what he did or did not accomplish – would we have gone in deeper in Vietnam? Would he have pushed civil rights? Would the Cold War have lasted? We’ll never know, and frankly, pursuing such questions is a waste of time. But there is little doubt that he inspired a generation to go into politics, to take up issues such as equality, peace, the environment, and to try to fix the world.
I will always remember him as that young man with the brilliant smile and the Brookline cadence to his speech who inspired me to care about what was happening outside my comfortable cocoon of white middle-class suburbia; to think about war, poverty, peace, education, equality, and what I could do about them.