November 22, 1963. To my generation, it was a terrible watershed in our lives. Those of us alive remember where we were and how we heard of the assassination of JFK. Could it really be 50 years ago? Why are we still talking about it all these decades later? Here are my memories and why his life - not just his death - matters to me.
We were dismissed from school early, and when I arrived at home, my mother was in tears watching the television. From that moment on our entire family was glued to the television for the next three days - including the surreal scene from the Dallas jail of Oswald's killing by Jack Ruby.
Most of the media coverage and commentary understandably focuses on his assassination - understandably. The plot scenarios get rolled out - some more fantastical with each passing year. I have read most of the books, but I do no find them ultimately persuasive. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. Yes there are unanswered questions and tantalizing threads, and I remain open minded, but so far, they are not credible.
I was always more interested in reading about his life and his Presidency. We have learned that he was a flawed man in his private life, but he changed America, and the world. With panache, style and wit, he represented a fresh, appealing view of what was possible as individuals, and ultimately as citizens of the world.
JFK's Last Hundred Days: 'The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President', author Thurston Clarke paints a picture of a man who had gone through the profoundly personal tragedy of the loss of his stillborn son, Patrick; his evolution from a cautious politician to a confident national and world leader are convincingly laid out by Clarke in his book. I had the opportunity to meet him at an event at the Canadian War Museum and the book is a must-read for Kennedy-ophiles.
Given my enduring fascination by JFK - and equally his brother, Bobby - it seemed inevitable that I would end up at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (now known as the Harvard Kennedy School). Nicknamed 'Camelot High', the Kennedy School turned out to be an even greater experience than I had imagined. One of our profs, the late Richard Neustadt, was a Kennedy aide, and a well known expert on Presidential power. He shared with us wonderful anecdotes of JFK. "He was the smartest man I ever knew", said Neustadt.
While there, I attended a 20th anniversary panel discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis and had the opportunity to see McGeorge Bundy and others who were right there during this crisis. They shared their recollections of how Kennedy refused to listen to the advice to unleash nuclear weapons on Cuba and instead - with the help of his brother - find a negotiated solution. The world really was teetering on the edge of nuclear war. Kennedy, with the ability to stay cool and skeptical, was able to weigh carefully the advice of the military leaders anxious to have him press the button.
It struck me at times like that how determined she seemed to be to live a 'normal' life and she succeeded in doing so as much as possible.
JFK 'I'm an idealist without illusions'
Will there ever be another JFK? Our world has become so much more cynical since that November day. Our political life has turned crass and mean. Yet, to balance this off, I have the privilege of interviewing young people applying to Harvard each year, and it's a wonderful experience in that it reminds me that there still are idealistic youth who want to change the world.
So on this 50th anniversary, I think of what the late Sen. Pat Moynihan (D-NY) said to columnist Mary McGrory as they were on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force base watching President Kennedy's casket being lowered to the ground. Mary said to him in anguish, "Pat do you think we'll ever laugh again?" Moynihan replied, "Mary, we'll laugh again. But we'll never be young again."
Let's spare a moment today to think of JFK - for what he accomplished and where our world would be today if he had lived.