JOHN F. KENNEDY AND THE EARLY 1960’s: A REMEMBRANCE

It will be fifty-two years this Nov. 22nd since President Kennedy’s assasination in Dallas. The following essay appeared in the Novemeber, 1998 issue of VINTAGE Magazine on the thirty fifth anniversary, hence the May 1999 response letter I received from the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.  Initially in 1993 on the thirtieth anniversary this essay originally appeared in the Northeast Philadelphia News Gleaner as a special article and an edited version, that year, appeared in the editorial page of The Philadelphia Daily News.

JOHN F. KENNEDY AND THE EARLY 1960’s: A REMEMBRANCE

What was suppose to be the 1960’s – – the “real” 1960’s, not the protest demonstrating, nightly Vietnam War news, flower-children, anti-establishment 1960’s that have come to symbolize that tumultous decade – – came to an explosive, violent end at 12:30 PM, Fallas, Texas time in that city’s Dealy Plaza on November 22, 1963. When the final bullet did it’s fatal damage to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth President of the United States of America, a period was put at the end of the sentence that contained the word that was to embody the 60’s: promise. For not only did a young President die that autumn day but also a very short era of re-newed hope for the future. Call it what you will — – “The New Frontier”, “The Kennedy Years” or, as it would be later and forever known, “Camelot”. Call it whatever you chose, but whatever you chose, call it over on a Friday afternoon in the back seat of an open-top Lincoln limousine. And it ended in the blink of an eye, just like that, in the time it takes to snap the life from the limb of a tree; a seed of hope unplanted to be replaced by the seed of uncertainty. However, let us leave the what-if-had-he-lived theories, the conspiracy/non-conspiracy debates to others for another time. Let us also not review revisionist views of policy or moral character or be absorbed by partisan politics here for this remembrance is concerned with what can only be described as a “feeling” – – a national mood-swing, if you will, – – that ended abruptly with a horrifying, deadly accurate, humanity- insulting assault not only upon a human being, but the office of the Presidency and the psyche of the nation.

The “real” 1960’s began in excitement, 1960 itself being a Presidential election year. By the time the year had ended, history had been made in a variety of ways. For the first time since the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the last century, Presidential candidates came face-to-face with each other on the issues of the day. Television, coming of age as the most powerful form of media, broadcast the series of debates for anyone who owned a TV set in the country to see. Part and parcel of campaigns today, televised debates were innovative and historic then. The 1960 debated led to the closest election in contemporary time, with Kennedy just edging-out his Republican opponent Richard M. Nixon. For the first time, the country had as its chief executive a man born in the twentieth century. For the first time a member of a minority, both ancestral and religious, – – and Irish Catholic – – occupied the oval office.

On January 20th, 1961, in his inaugural address, President Kennedy would reaffirm the tenets of his “New Frontier” speech. In that acceptance speech as Presidential candidate for the Democratic party in July of 1060 he had informed the nation that the “New Frontier” of which he spoke “was not a set of promises – – it is a set of challenges .” As President, he re-emphasized that ideal by telling Americans to ” ask not what your country can do for you – – ask what you can do for your country” and it was if the nation was re-vitalized , an American on the move again, re-committed to the original ideals on which the country was founded. He proclaimed that everything would not be accomplished in the first one hundred days, the first one thousand days, the life of his administration nor even in our lifetime on earth. “But let us begin,” he said and we believed. We believed we could make a difference – – in ourselves, in or world. We believed, as he said, that we as a nation were great , but could be greater. We believed….

Certainly, the early sixties were not without their problems. Cuba, Berlin, Civil Rights and the approaching clouds of armed conflict on the horizon od Southeast Asia were daily reminders of the tenuous times in which we lived. Sadly, in just slightly more than one thousand days from that inauguration, the challengingly idealistic beginnings of the 1960’s came to a horrendous halt. Prophetically, in his commencement address to the graduating class of American University, Monday, June 10th, 1963, in which he concentrated his thoughts on American and Russian co-existence in the age of ever increasing nuclear arms build up, President Kennedy stated: “We all breathe the sameair. We all cherish our children’s lives. And we are all mortal.” In five months he would be gone.

In a documentary compiled from Kennedy Library film clips produced for Home Box Office cable television in 1988 by Kunhardt Productions entitled”JFK: IN HIS OWN WORDS”, the unmistakable voice of the man who spoke of “vigah”and the island of “Cuber” ironically states that almost everyone alive at the time could probably remember what he or she was doing when they heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is an eerie observation to be made by that famous voice, for today, thirty- five years  after those murderous moments in Dallas, the same statement can be applied to the fate of the man who embodied it.

It is said, almost to cliche, that anyone who can remember the sixties wasn’t really there – – a sardonic re-counting of the old “tune-in, turn-on, drop-out attitude that evolved into the legacy for which the decade will unfortunately forever be remembered. The drug culture, the decline in values, morals national trust and the “Age of Aquarius” came out of the pail that was cast over the country in the first few years following Kennedy’s death. A grayness settled over a traumatized, lost nation in 1964and ’65 and our daily lives have been effected ever since. But as we approach the thirty fifieth anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, let us not forget, the risk of another cliche, that indeed for ” one brief, shining moment” there was the dawn of a different decade called the 1960’s; that for “one, brief shining moment”, an era of charm, wit, sophistication, compassion, vision and courage fell over the most powerful nation on earth led by mature, energetic youth – – making most of us believe even stronger in ourselves and our abilities – – making most of the rest of the world look to us in admiration for leadership.

Everything, as every thinking person is aware, changes. Evolution is inevitable and necessary, as is at times revolution, though not just for that method’s sake alone. But since that day thirty five years ago in Dallas, a very significant piece of the puzzle of our lives was stolen from us and our times forever, altered. And so we live with and adjust to the changes that that act has wrought upon us. But the puzzle’s purloined piece shall forever be among the missing and a part of those unfulfilled portions of our lives and we shall, none of us, ever really be the same.

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