JFK: Fifty Years Later
John F. Kennedy
January 20, 1961
Fifty years ago today
"Bring 'em on!"
-George W. Bush, Summer 2003
"Darwin was wrong."
-Mort Sahl, 1988
The "ask not what your country can do for you" bit I never thought to be one of that speech's strong points. Although it is striking in hindsight for its call to sacrifice (Can you imagine a politician doing that today?), it was never much more than a sound bite I think - a catchy quotation that would sound good on the radio and evening news programs. There is so much more to John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address than the one line that everyone remembers.
"The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God."
It is ironic that the death of Sargent Shriver this week should fall on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of his brother-in-law's inauguration. As the decades pass, John Fitzgerald Kennedy recedes further and further into the mists of history. May 16 of last year marked the first day that he has been gone from this life longer than he lived it. Recent months also saw the death of Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's devoted aide and main speechwriter. Indeed, most of the members of that administration - as young and vital as most of them were on January 20, 1961 - have now passed on. "Camelot" was a long, long time ago.
I can go on all night talking about Jack Kennedy. One of the perks of being Irish Catholic is that we get to refer to him as "Jack". Although he's not my favorite president (FDR holds that place in my heart) he was the only chief executive of my lifetime who would qualify as "great". (Sorry, but I never succumbed to Ronniemania). No one who succeeded him has even come close to measuring up to JFK. His greatness lies in his legacy. Although he wasn't able to accomplish a heck-of-a-lot during the less-than three years that fate allowed him, he did set this country on the path toward accomplishing great things - sending human beings to the moon for instance.
"Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction."
Or 2011 for that matter.
My memory of 1961 is only vaguely focused. I was, after all, two-and-a-half years old on the day President Kennedy was inaugurated. President Obama hadn't even been born yet. That blessed little event would take place on August 4 of that year, and (ATTENTION BIRTHERS) it would take place in Hawaii, which (as we all know) is located in the United States of America.
My impression of JFK when I was a very little boy - a toddler really - was as the guy on TV with all that hair. It always seemed so long to me! I wouldn't see a comparable head of hair on any man until the Beatles arrived on our shores in February 1964. Because of this I thought he was much younger than he really was. I remember a few years after his death, the moment I discovered that he was in fact thirteen years older than my father. I was stunned! I had honestly thought him to be about ten years younger - simply because he seemed so youthful!
It's ironic to think that, despite his youth and vitality - "vigah" - his health, we now know, was so fragile. Three times in his life he was given the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. It's a safe bet that, had he not gone to Dallas on that dreadful day, he would have died relatively young anyway. Jack Kennedy's stay on the planet earth was never meant to be long.
I can still remember what my father was wearing when he told me, "The president's been shot." He had just pulled in the driveway and had the car radio on. I was arriving home from Mrs. Peevey's kindergarten class. I distinctly recall that, despite it being late into the autumn, it was an unseasonably warm day. Something wonderful ended on November 22, 1963 - not just John F. Kennedy's life - but America's youthful optimism as well. I don't believe this country ever got over the assassination of President Kennedy. Maybe it will one day. Maybe not.
"I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not...."
Aw, hell. You know the rest of it.
The Inaugural Address
"The Rant" by Tom Degan