This week the media will look back fifty years to remind its audience of the assassination of President John Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Kennedy was 46 years old. My parents were in their mid-forties at the time, only a few years younger than the President.
I was eleven years old, a seventh grader in a Newport News, Virginia public elementary school. I learned the news at the end of the school day. Two miles away, my future wife attended a Catholic school, where her school principal wept openly over the public address system as she told students and teachers about the President’s shooting in Dallas.
In hindsight, one can review the accomplishments and failures of the Kennedy administration with 20/20 clarity. What that type of analysis fails to convey, however, is the mood of the country during the Kennedy years.
My father was an automobile mechanic struggling to build a business several years after suffering broken legs, broken ribs, a pierced lung, and back injuries in a coal mining accident. Our neighbors were army and navy engineers and military officers, many of them in their thirties and early forties. All of them were optimistic about the country’s future, even as the country struggled with civil rights and a Cold War that sometimes became uncomfortably warm.
The Kennedys generated a sense of optimism. This was a relatively youthful administration when compared to those preceding it (Eisenhower, Truman, FDR). Americans could flip through Life and Look magazines and witness the Kennedy children at play in the White House. They could turn to one of the three networks on black-and-white televisions sets and watch astronauts soar into space in the early stages of America’s race to put a man on the moon.
Sometimes the country just needs a cheerleader, someone who inspires us to accomplish more than we think is possible, someone who inspires us to look beyond ourselves for the greater good of our community (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”). For Democrats, it may be Kennedy. For Republicans, it may be Reagan. In both cases, the men made Americans feel better about themselves, more hopeful for their country. Perhaps we look at some leaders with rose-colored glasses, but occasionally we need their inspiration to give us the determination to face the challenges of another day.