Fifty Years Later


I’ve been watching a lot of the programs about John F. Kennedy, and I really enjoyed the stories about his presidency, especially the PBS special. The hope and promise of this bright, articulate, principled man and his wonderful family brought back lots of happy childhood memories. I don’t care if he fooled around with lots of beautiful women. So what?

His careful judgment during the Cuban Missile Crisis — and, let’s face it, that of Nikita Krushchev —  prevented a nuclear war that would have destroyed human civilization. And I think it’s important to note that all the advice he got from all his learned advisors was terrible. Every one of them was in favor of destroying the world just to avoid appearing weak. JFK didn’t have to worry about that. He was a war hero.

In the matter of civil rights, it’s clear that JFK came late to the party, but I think he planned to join it all along. He just couldn’t do it too soon or he would no longer be president, just as Franklin Roosevelt could not pass a federal law against lynching. Then JFK saw George Wallace spewing his hateful, pompous vitriol and decided he could wait no longer.

But the assassination — the motorcade, the Zapruder film, the bugler who missed a note, the shock and sorrow on the faces of RFK and Jackie Kennedy, little John John saluting — a lot of it I just couldn’t watch because it was all too painful. Fifty  years later, I can’t stop weeping.

I’ve been wondering why it was we all loved JFK so much, and I think it was because he asked all of us to join  in and help him. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I was just a little boy in Dedham, Massachusetts, and all I was asked to do was to do sit-ups and jumping jacks in the basement of Ames School, but I felt I was doing my part, I was a part of something very big and very important.

Much later I was doing research for some Memorial Day speeches for state senators in New Hampshire, and I came upon an address by Oliver Wendell Holmes senior, the novelist and father of the Civil War hero and chief justice. Holmes said something like: “In these times it is not appropriate for a man to ask what his country can do for him. He ought, rather, to ask what he can do for his country.”

I got a tingle up my spine. “Someone,” I thought, “has been here before me.”