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JFK and the promise of America

Updated: December 23, 2013 2:48PM

Your average American 10-year-old may know nothing about Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower or the Cuban Missile Crisis, but chances are he or she has heard of John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy was the magic president, part real and part myth, whom parents and teachers naturally talk to children about because it’s a way of telling them about the promise of America. Kennedy, they tell their kids, believed the United States — and every American — could do great things and make a better world. He brought out the best in us.

In the 50 years since Kennedy was assassinated — Friday marks the anniversary — we have been given plenty of cause to beat that idealism into the ground. But as a nation we still hold to it. Believing that America can do great things is in the American DNA.

The power of our ideals has weathered assassinations, stupid wars, racial strife, domestic violence and a countervailing meanness of spirit that hits like the stink from a sewage plant. And Kennedy, for many Americans, has remained the personification of that lofty spirit, even as we know so much more today about his personal failings.

Americans of the Kennedy era had survived a depression, won a world war and built an economy that roared like a 1960 T-Bird. They sensed doors were opening.

The very fact of Kennedy’s election was grounds for — forgive us — hope and change. Here was an Irish Catholic, an ethnic American just like a lot of us, sitting in the White House. Granted, he was a child of privilege, preferred a sail on a boat to a beer on a stoop, and married an elegant woman who used “summer” as a verb. All the same, he was Catholic and just two generations removed from a peat bog.

Opening another door, Kennedy moved further on civil rights than his predecessors. As a candidate, he had called Coretta Scott King to express support for her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was being held in a Georgia prison. As president, he called on Americans to embrace civil rights as moral imperative. He introduced a bill, albeit a weak one, that outlawed discrimination in voter registration and public accommodations.

Kennedy established the Peace Corps, the very essence of youthful idealism, and called for putting a man on the moon by the end of the century. Two more doors of possibility blew right open.

In an editorial on the emotional first anniversary of Kennedy’s death, the Sun-Times did its best to resist overstatement and noted that President Lyndon B. Johnson had accomplished more in his first year in office than Kennedy had in his entire 34 months on the job. But, of course, the editorial added, Johnson rode the momentum created by Kennedy’s assassination. Fifty years later, that assessment holds up.

The editorial took a misstep, though, when it lamented that Kennedy’s assassination came at a time when “acts of violence,” such as racial murders, “were” commonplace. The mistake was in the verb tense. “Were,” we know now, should have been “are” or even “will continue to be.” The violence continued unabated, with a new horror — random mass murder — joining in.

The earlier editorial touched as well on a problem that sounds awfully familiar today: “The whisperers and preachers of hate and disunity who undermine confidence in our government and our public officials by irresponsible attacks on their sanity and loyalty.”

That crowd is still around, right? Except they don’t whisper anymore.

All the more reason, then, to remember and honor JFK and all the unabashed idealists of his times. They understood what this country is all about. Americans, pulling together, can do great things.

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