I have only very recently become active on Democratic Underground, and have today decided to make use of my journal for the first time. That my first entry into it should be a transciption of a tribute to President Kennedy that I posted on another forum earlier today seems to me appropriate, as it was during his presidency that I first developed a political awareness, and he became (and remains) one of my heroes, who played a definite part in the forming of my liberal leanings. It may not be inaccurate to say that he holds a partial responsibility for my presence on this forum.
On this day, November 22nd, forty-seven years ago in Dallas, 1963, the last truly great President of the United States died, gunned down by sniper fire in the midst of what was supposed to have been the beginnings of his campaign for reelection.
This year will mark the half-centenary since John F. Kennedy was elected to the highest office in the land in 1960, in one of the closest-run political races in American history. With the years of peace and prosperity that had marked the Eisenhower administration coming to a close, the opening of the 1960s promised, for good or ill, to usher in a new era. Voters then were asked to chose who they wished to guide them into these new and uncertain times: the shrewd, tough, and experienced Richard Nixon, a familiar but faintly menacing figure on the national stage who nonetheless commanded considerable respect and admiration amongst broad segments of the populace; or the newcomer on the scene of national politics - the young and virtually unknown Senator from Massachusetts, Jack Kennedy, whose inexperience, opposition from much the Democratic Party leadership, and Catholocism were widely seen to be obstacles to his electability, but whose inspiring rhetoric and brilliant campaigning allowed him to draw together an electoral coalition that could challenge Nixon in his quest for the White House.
In some ways the two men were similar. Both were young (by the standards of politics), highly intelligent, powerful speakers, possessed respectable war records, and were known for their coolness in times of crisis. And yet in other respects the two could not have been more different. They represented two radically divergent visons of and for America and American politics, and their confrontation in 1960 would foreshadow a struggle between those two visons that would come to define the modern political age.
After a campaign that featured stirring oratory, historic debates, frenzied barnstorming, backroom dealing, and the stealing of thousands of votes by both sides, the results were finally in. JFK had beaten Nixon by a little over 100,000 votes out of some 70 million cast.
In the lead-up to the 35th President's inauguration, many people had no idea what could be expected from the new, young Commander-in-Chief. On the one hand the odds seem stacked against him. He had virtually no mandate to speak of - his victory in the populate vote had been a mere sliver, and Nixon had actually carried more states. The 87th Congress was going to be thoroughly conservative, and would resent and resist any attempts by the President to control it. The legislators were not the only ones who would resent Kennedy's presence - the upper echelons of the military and the Intelligence community regarded JFK and his New Frontiersmen with something that came dangerously close to contempt. Even those who were willing to support the incoming President were divided into numerous factions possessed of divergent agendas, all clamoring for the President's support. He would somehow have to mollify enough of these groups to maintain his political powerbase whilst preserving his own agenda in something of it original form. And saddled with these handicaps, challenges for the new administration loomed. The growth in the economy was sluggish, and Americans felt the prosperity they had now enjoyed for years to be threatened. Abroad, numerous problems simmered away - from the ongoing problems of Cuba and Vietnam, to the generally chaotic state of affairs in Latin America, the needs of Europe, and the ever-present atmosphere of the Cold War. Domestically, social developments that had been ignored during the '50s were now threatening to boil over, as the Civil Rights era came into its stride. It is understandable then, why many predicted that Kennedy would find himself overwhelmed.
And yet JFK regarded these challenges not merely as confrontable, but as opportunities for acting upon his vision for the country, which stemmed from what was perhaps his most notable personal characteristic: a soaring idealism - for America, for Democracy, and for Social Justice - that was unlike anything possessed by any of our other Chief Executives. He was determined not merely to enact an agenda, but to act as a unifying force.
To this end he worked steadily in the days and weeks leading up to January 20th, 1961, seeking to broaden his base of support as much as possible, and meeting with considerable success in doing so. Then, when the day came and he was sworn in as President, the moment came when the spirit of the New Frontier and the Thousand Days were truly defined, as he delivered what stands as unquestionably one of the three greatest inaugural addresses in American history, rivalled only by Lincoln's second, and Franklin Roosevelt's first. Inspiring even when viewed through the dim eyes of history, in its own time the speech that John F. Kennedy delivered that day did more than enrapture a nation - it electrified the world.
"Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, reverend clergy, fellow citizens:
We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom -- symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning -- signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.
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.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
This much we pledge -- and more.
To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do -- for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom -- and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
To those people in the huts and villages of half 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.
To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge: to convert our good words into good deeds, in a new alliance for progress, to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.
To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support -- to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective, to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak, and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.
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.
We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.
But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course -- both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.
So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah -- to "undo the heavy burdens, and
And, if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor -- not a new balance of power, but a new world of law -- where the strong are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved.
All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days; nor in the life of this Administration; nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need -- not as a call to battle, though embattled we are -- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation," a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. 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 what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."
The effect that President Kennedy had on the nation was something that went beyond merely inspiring men and women with rhetoric. His leadership produced an outpouring of energy from the American people of a kind that has never occurred since. This "energy" was not merely a startling increase in activity (although this was observed to be happening) - it was a thoroughly positive force that lies at the heart of JFK's greatness as a democratic leader: his simple ability to bring out the best in the American character and the American people. The Age of Camelot was an era defined by a burst of idealism that mirrored Kennedy's own, and which is perhaps best summed up by this quote from a man who had just joined the Peace Corps:
"Before I joined
It is this, just as much as revolutionizing American economic policy (the result was the second greatest period of economic expansion in US history), guiding a series of lesser initiatives through Congress and laying the foundations for several keystones of the Great Society (including Medicare and the Civil Rights Act of 1964), employing bold Executive Action against the crises that confronted American society in the 1960s, stubbornly fighting to break the influence of the Cold Warriors in the military and Intelligence communities, staring down the Soviet Union over the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then reaching out a hand of peace to it afterwards, anticipating detente in his approach to foreign policy - his initiatives in reaching out to South America, Africa, India, and the Far East can justly be described as visionary - at the time of his death he was planning to travel to Russia in 1964 to continue work on the possibility of bringing about a peaceful resolution to the Cold War, and inspiring the nation to put a man on the moon, that gives John F. Kennedy his claim to number amongst the truly great American Presidents.
That his administration was cut tragically short does not reduce from the historic nature of these achievements. It is not only his admirers who maintain that had he enjoyed eight years in the presidency, JFK would rank alongside the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson in terms of his historic greatness. At least one of his enemies, Fidel Castro, remained stubborn in his belief that Kennedy had the potential to surpass even Washington, Lincoln, and FDR as the greatest President in American history.
But then on November 22nd, 1963, on the 1,036th day of his presidency, as the President was travelling to Dallas, Texas, to begin laying the groundwork for his campaign for reelection in 1964, a pair of shots rang out that bloodily carved themselves into the pages of history, and ensured that the Kennedy legacy would be as much tragic, unfulfilled promise as concrete accomplishment. It was the defining moment of a decade, and one that nobody who experienced it will ever forget.
And so America and Americans lost a leader who combined a vision for the future based upon a lasting peace and social justice, the ability and courage to attempt to make that vision a reality, and who could inspire people not merely to follow him on this quest, but to share his belief in it. We have never since had a leader who has matched the greatness of John F. Kennedy.
And the real tragedy is perhaps that we never will.
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