"To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."
From The Inaugural Address of John Kennedy, President of the United States, delivered Washington, DC on January 20, 1961.
I was sitting in Mr. Mcelheny's fourth grade class at William Davis Elementary School in Southampton, PA on November 22, 1963. We were about to conclude the school day, and embark on a week off for Thanksgiving. My walk home - six blocks - often seemed miles. Principal Deitz began afternoon announcements in a somber, almost hushed tone.
"President Kennedy has been shot and killed today."
I was not stunned. I was confused. President Kennedy was not unknown to me, even though I was only 9. My father and I had gathered often around the RCA "high fidelity" and listened to Vaughn Meader's comic impersonation until the record's grooves were smooth. I had gotten pretty good at mimicking the Boston accent ("Cuber" always making my dad laugh).
We were Republicans, that much I knew. My parents had voted for Nixon. But, there was something...to steal the Kennedy-era phrase...vigorous about this man. He had been a war hero, a Navy PT Boat commander. His administration began America's space exploration in earnest, and he had befriended the astronauts whose names we knew so well. He played touch football on the lawn of the White House and tossed the coin at the Army-Navy game every year. He had a pretty wife, two adorable kids and when Jackie delivered their son Patrick five and a half weeks early America ground to a halt in prayer (sadly, their preemie son died of respiratory distress now commonly treated successfully). He was handsome, funny and stood strong for freedom.
At the same time, Americans were awakening to the poverty, despair and shamefulness of institutionalized racism. Kennedy's administration had begun steps to have sweeping civil rights legislation enacted. That he was not especially popular in the South seemed irrelevant.
No one is perfect. JFK was a serial philanderer. Rumors of electoral shenanigans involving the city of Chicago and its mayor persist. He authorized American troops to assist in the invasion of Cuba by a nationalist army we trained and, at the last minute, withdrew support for the operation. It failed, and a number of them were killed. That may have led to the Soviet Union's decision to base nuclear-tipped missiles there and we all know how that turned out.
Years later, I would learn that some of the Kennedy mystique was just that. The facade was aided by a sympathetic press and accepted by a society hungry for the energy he and his beautiful wife generated. He was, however, just what the country needed, a charismatic and optimistic president to represent a new generation to whom the torch of protecting freedom had passed.
I went home fifty years ago today and watched the TV coverage, passing on the dinner of chicken drumsticks my mom had prepared. Later in the evening I slipped Meader's "First Family" record into its sleeve. Together, my dad and I pledged never to play it again.