I awoke on a cold morning in January 1960 to my father’s pronouncement that I would not be attending school that day, but would accompany him to hear John F. Kennedy announce his candidacy for President of the United States. At 15, any excuse not to go to school was welcome, so even though I knew little about this person, I had no hesitation. Nor was I surprised. My father was a Capitol Hill reporter and often took one or more of his children with him when working. But little did I know how much my life and the life of this country would be impacted by the events of that day.
John F. Kennedy, at age 43, was the youngest president of this country and the first to be born in the 20th century. For my father, he brought an unusual intellectual quality, a thorough knowledge of world history and politics, as well as an appreciation for the arts and culture that was unprecedented. For me, he provided a level of inspiration that I had not seen in our political leaders and helped me begin to think more concretely of the world beyond the high school walls.
While attending his inauguration a year later, I heard the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” that urged me to think about what I could contribute to making the world a better place. While president, he launched the Peace Corps and VISTA program that gave every young person a direct way to make a commitment. After college in 1966, I was inspired to join an organization upon which the Peace Corps was modeled, International Voluntary Services, and went to Vietnam for two years.
But the war there, now in full force, limited most effective community development efforts, and much of my time was spent in refugee and medical relief. It was a war that President Kennedy sought hard to avoid. He made it very clear to numerous advisors and the US military establishment that he did not think the US could win a war in Vietnam, and that he planned to pull out all American military advisors completely after the 1964 elections.
At Kennedy’s death, there were fewer than 17,000 Americans in Vietnam. Five years later, the number of American soldiers in Vietnam peaked at 535,000, and by the end of the war it had claimed the lives of 58,000 U.S. soldiers. Had he lived, Vietnam might have remained an obscure holiday destination for world travelers.
The Kennedy mystique was especially strong in Europe, as I discovered in 1964 while spending six months in foreign study. He was the first person my European friends wanted to know about, and I could never satisfy their curiosity. Kennedy’s interest in changing the dynamic of the Cold War, which directly impacted Europeans, ran counter to typical rhetoric coming out of Washington at that time. He was quietly making inroads to having a dialogue with Russia, while at the same time staking much of the credibility of his presidency on achieving a meaningful nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets. Surprisingly it received overwhelming support in the Senate, while being strongly opposed by the military establishment. The Cold War would persist for another 25-30 years, but the seeds were planted and we were all safer for it.
While reducing Cold War tensions may have been his greatest accomplishment, and propelling the US effort to land a man on the moon his greatest inspiration, his impact in other areas was vast but less evident. His civil rights legislative package, for example, angered many in the African-American community for being too weak, and triggered a backlash among white Americans throughout the country. It did set the ball in motion for passage of comprehensive legislation under President Lyndon Johnson.
Thirteen years after the assassination I experienced the Kennedy mystique and tightknit-ness of his family from a different perspective, when I joined Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s staff as his press secretary. On the wall next to my desk was a large photograph of President Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy, both with their deep tans and charismatic smiles, both now dead.
Senator Kennedy’s star aura was very evident when we walked across the capital grounds from the Senate Office Building by the attention he got from passersby – just because he was a Kennedy. Members of the extended Kennedy family were frequent visitors to the office. Once the Kennedy matriarch, Rose Kennedy, interrupted with a telephone call. From the one side of the conversation, I could hear it was clear she had been calling to make sure he had gone to church on Sunday.
Occasionally a new report on President Kennedy’s assassination would come out. Senator Kennedy would not read it, but wanted to know if it said anything new.
When we decided to hold a reception for the Massachusetts press, Hyannis Port was selected as the location. The Kennedy compound, as it was known, was the one place Joe Kennedy considered home among his many houses and the one place the Kennedy family gravitated to in times of joy and sorrow. The beach in front of the house is not as expansive as it appeared in pictures capturing family touch football games, and the house was not lavish. But in every corner it reflected the family that called it home.
Who knows what the world would be like if Kennedy had not been killed 50 years ago? But it is a better place for who he was and what he did while alive.