Giving Thanks for JFK

Fifty years after his assassination, his legacy lives on.

President John F. Kennedy meets with a group from the Tennessee Valley Authority in the White House. (Warren K. Leffler for USN&WR)
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The shadow of Dallas 1963 has been a sad prelude to this Thanksgiving Day. Across the nation, in prayer and family reunions, we give thanks as the early settlers did for deliverance, but this Thanksgiving we also marked with special gratitude and affection the life of President John F. Kennedy. A week after his assassination in Dallas, his name became destined for celestial glory in the renaming of the rocket launch site on Merritt Island in Florida as the John F. Kennedy Space Center. He had committed us, on May 25, 1961, to putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade and returning him safely to Earth. And so we did, on July 20, 1969.

"In a very real sense," he had told Congress, "it will not be one man going to the moon – if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation." How good he made us feel about the United States and about ourselves! I am one among the many who came to America (in my case, from Canada) inspired by this graceful young man.

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We loved the carefree images: his young daughter and son romping through the Oval Office; our first hatless president horsing around with his brothers and children in Cape Cod; playing touch football with intensity, and, as somebody put it, with the bonus of brains. While he wore his heroism so casually, we all knew of his gallant rescue of his PT 109 crew in the Pacific in 1943 when their boat was wrecked.

He was imbued with a sense of history and a love of language, witty in the salons, formidable in debate. He was the epitome of the perfect television candidate at the very moment when television eclipsed print as the main way of speaking to the nation. It was no accident we called it the age of Camelot, having seen his energy and promise on TV; he entered our heads and never left. Who could not be drawn to such promise, to try and attach our own destinies to the nation he led for too short a time? The six stunning white horses drawing the caisson with the coffin containing our dead president carried with him the dreams his vision had seemed to put within our reach.

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No wonder he inspired the baby-boomer generation, as well as young veterans of World War II who were ready for new frontiers. As Stephen Spender wrote in his poem "I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great," "Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun. And left the vivid air signed with their honor."

JFK – those initials resonant with his spirit – remains immensely popular to this day even among the youngest American adults, those between the ages of 18 and 29. He was presented to them and all of us by several biographers who worked with him and knew and cared about him, and captured his essence. In a conversation with Kennedy aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others that columnist Mary McGrory recalled at the time, she said, "I feel like we'll never laugh again." The reply: "We'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again." And so it was.

The assassination was an earthquake of violence at a time when America was placid – the exception being the Deep South, where ferment was increasing over civil rights. It was a nation building on the prosperity of the Eisenhower years, politically calm. The relative peace did not last. We were tormented by cultural divides developing apace throughout the sixties and the appalling assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, not to mention a president's resignation – all staining and straining America's public life. My generation took the murders personally, angry at being robbed of the Kennedys and aspirations JFK expressed with surpassing eloquence: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," he proclaimed in the famous inaugural, later giving youth a chance to fulfill the vision by establishing the Peace Corps. He gave heart to the beleaguered East Germans ("Ich bin ein Berliner") and to the impoverished: "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."