It was 54 years ago today that the news emerged from the speaker in my Grade 7 class in Calgary that American president John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. School was promptly cancelled, leaving us all to head home in a kind of stunned silence, only to see our devastated parents huddled around the television. What we didn’t realize then, as Canadians, was that something more significant passed away than one mere political leader.
So much has been written concerning Kennedy’s abilities, flaws and influence that we are left with the impression that his charisma and youth are what shaped his times. They weren’t – impressive as they were. In reality, he had a disastrous first year (Bay of Pigs, his degrading first meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, a series of legislative defeats). This gave way to his adroit management of the Cuban missile crisis and his leading the charge for a civil rights act, healthcare for the young and old, and a support for the arts that has never been equaled.
Nevertheless, John Kennedy’s political record has been transcended by the perception of him. Historians consistently rank him somewhere near the middle of the presidents, yet the public repeatedly places him in the top three. How can we explain just how wrong Kennedy’s scholarly friend, Richard Neustadt, had it when he wrote a decade after Dallas: “He will be just a flicker, forever clouded by the record of his successors. I don’t think history will have much space for John Kennedy.” Some flicker! Somehow, Kennedy lit a permanent flame that not only burns in Arlington cemetery, but in the hearts and imaginations of millions.
The most important aspect of the legacy that is John Kennedy was never really the man, but the emerging generation from which he came. He sought to define their aspirations and, by extension, himself. The new cohort of young Americans coming of age in the 1960s was still close enough to World War Two to acknowledge the deep debt that was owed to their parents and the sacrifices that were made to provide the infrastructure necessary for the modern era. Yet they had their own dreams and designs – the collective urge to go even farther than what the older generation had accomplished. Those aspirations remained undefined until John Kennedy – the youngest president in history – took a shot at it.
Kennedy sensed the time was right to move the needle on civil rights. He introduced the Peace Corps to enhance the commitment of young Americans to a broader world in need. He contributed to the formation of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, sensing correctly the fears of his generation. He launched the “New Frontier” – reforms that expanded unemployment benefits, enacted the Equal Pay Act, increased federal funds for housing and the protection of waterways, raised the minimum wage, and provided enhanced infrastructure for farmers across the country.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was in turning aspirations right back at the young people who professed them. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Instead of turning them against their elders, he challenged them to work together to build on what had already been achieved.
Not surprisingly, they took him up on his offer, elevating their expectations and their own accountability at the same time. So charged were they that they were willing to go to the moon with him. Kennedy’s spirit energized an age of remarkable collaboration that lay at the heart of young America.
And then a bullet ended it in Dallas. Yes, the Civil Rights Act was later enacted by his successors, as were many of Kennedy’s other efforts, including reaching the moon. But somehow the spirit that lit the flame was gone. Just as the young generation donned their climbing gear to reach heights history had failed to attempt, they lost two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, they endured the Vietnam debacle, and they slumped into a collective despair at the Watergate revelations. The moment was gone. That belief that politics could capture the heights of public yearning and turn it into the best of civic activism was muted. It would eventually move into deep recession.
John Kennedy’s assassination didn’t just slay an icon; it mortally wounded a collective belief in progress that would extend prosperity and equality to all people. Individuals and young minds would still yearn for such accomplishments, but the collective bond that held the belief together dissipated, leaving citizens isolated in their attempts to enhance society. As great as Kennedy’s gifts or flaws may have been, it was the loss of the possibility of politics to raise our collective game that was also slain that day. That is the nature of the pathos and elegance that emanates from Kennedy’s memory today. He wasn’t the only one who lost his dreams.