For one brief shining moment…
Fifty years ago on November 22, 1963, a shot rang out in Dallas, Texas and ended the life of John F. Kennedy, the most popular post-WWII president.
He was the youngest American president having succeeded Dwight D Eisenhower, the oldest President. He was attractive, charming and exuded youth and vitality, despite his health problems. He was supremely confident. He courted Jackie Bouvier in the public eye and they were glittering celebrities, American royalty.
For the presidential campaign Kennedy did not use the Democratic Party machine, but appealed directly to young people through TV. The first ever live TV election debate was held between JFK and Richard Nixon. Nixon had a face for radio. Kennedy appeared young and vibrant on television, he knew how to talk to the camera while Nixon visibly sweat on air. Those who listened to the radio debate thought Nixon won, but it was the opposite with the televised debate.
I asked my mother at the time who she was going to vote for in the 1960 election. She said, “Kennedy, he’s so good looking.” But he only won by a majority of 0.25% of the popular vote. His inaugural address declared:
“The torch had been passed to a new generation”
He represented a number of firsts for an American president. He was Catholic at a time when 1/4 of the electorate said they would not vote for a Catholic. In 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. said he “could not in good conscience” vote for a Catholic. Three years earlier, the Soviets had launched Sputnik, the first space satellite into orbit and the space race began in 1957. America was aware of Civil Defense (CD) in booklets, pamphlets and flyers. People were building bomb shelters, school children were drilled to seek protection from nuclear bombs by hiding under their desks.
He is remembered not so much for what he accomplished but for what he started. Though he served only 1,000 days in the Oval Office he started the Peace Corps, created security links with Israel, pushed the nuclear test ban treaty, and spoke out on civil rights and affirmative action in hiring. At his peak he had an 83% approval rating (by comparison the current administration: 39%).
He created a mission for the American people. In 1961 the first man in space was Soviet Yuri Gregarin. Predating the 5-year mission of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, Kennedy announced in 1961:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Though he would not live to see it, the US beat that goal in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed at Tranquility Base on the Moon.
Yet his presidency was not without its challenges. His meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna was a personal and professional failure, which subsequently saw the erecting of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the Iron Curtain. Kennedy expanded our role in Vietnam. The failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba was a disaster.
While the Kennedy presidency continues to capture the imagination of new generations of Americans older ones look back in nostalgia. I was a boy when he was assassinated and I remember, as if it was yesterday, writing down on a piece of school paper which I still have:
“Today President John F. Kennedy was killed.”
Kennedy started his Presidency saying “Ask not what your country can do for you” and ended it in Dallas were he was to give a speech to propose “cutting personal and corporate income taxes.”
His presidency has often been compared to that of King Arthur’s Camelot. Jackie Kennedy refurbished the White House, making a Versailles in DC, and subsequently filmed a tour of the Presidential mansion seen in 106 countries. The handsome and charming prince of a prominent Boston family married the beautiful French-educated princess of elegance and grace. JFK often played the title song from the then popular stage musical before going to bed.
The musical ends with King Arthur singing:
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian