Fifty years ago today, at approximately 12:30 p.m. (Central Time) President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a Dallas, Texas, motorcade. While Americans born after Nov. 22, 1963, may not understand the emotional toll JFK’s assassination had on the American public, those who suffered through the day when Camelot died continue to feel that loss even today.
Kennedy, at age 43, was the youngest person ever elected president, and the second-youngest ever to serve in the office. He was the first person elected to the Oval Office to be born in the 20th century and the first Catholic elected as president. His youthful, handsome appearance and his seemingly boundless optimism and energy captured the country’s spirit at the time, coming as it was out of the Cold War 1950s when nuclear annihilation overshadowed everyday life. He, his beautiful wife Jacqueline, and their two children, Caroline and John Jr., were America’s royalty.
Kennedy’s narrow election victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election has been called the first modern election because of the role played by television. The debates between the two candidates were the first ever televised, and many attributed Kennedy’s victory to the fact he looked better on TV than did Nixon. However true that may be, his victory did usher in a new era of optimism, especially for younger Americans. His thoughtful inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961, in which he closed with the famous line, “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” was a clarion call to this new generation. And many responded with a rush into public service.
Kennedy’s death less than three years into his first administration helped launch the cynicism toward government that is so prevalent among people today. Optimism may not have died on Nov. 22, 1963, but the events in the years that immediately followed – the escalation of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and the following year of JFK’s younger brother Robert, Watergate and its aftermath that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1975 – made anything like the faith and hope of 1961 difficult, if not impossible to bolster.
In retrospect, Kennedy’s presidential accomplishments did not equal his lofty ideals – or Americans’ hopes. He was the president who first put Americans in Vietnam, and even though his defenders say he would never have escalated the war, history has shown it is easier to get into these situations than to leave them. His election gave renewed hope to those in the civil rights movement, but many became disenchanted with his leadership in this area. It was actually his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who pushed through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Kennedy’s sexual dalliances – well-known, but not reported by a very different type of White House press corps, went against the image so carefully cultivated and portrayed of a family man who loved his wife and children.
In fairness to Kennedy, he did not get the chance to finish his first term. While no one can say with certainty he would have been re-elected in 1964, it is probable he would have been and many of the political victories scored by Johnson would probably also have been won by Kennedy.
We may disagree on John F. Kennedy’s legacy, but his spirit and optimism can still be found today in many people, especially younger ones who, like the generations preceding them, are looking for a sense of purpose in their lives.
Unfortunately, their optimism today has to battle daily against the huge wall of distrust and bitterness that began going up that dark day in Dallas 50 years ago.