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JFK at 100: An Unfulfilled, Yet Still Valuable, Vision

JFK at 100: An Unfulfilled, Yet Still Valuable, Vision

By Dave Price

It doesn’t seem possible, but if President John F. Kennedy were alive, he would be turning 100 at the end of this month.

In one of America’s most altering moments, President Kennedy was assassinated on a sunny day in Dallas in November, 1963. But more than just a jarring presidential personal loss, there are many who maintain that a sense of American innocence and optimism also died that day with its young 35th president.

Since then, thoughts of Kennedy, who will be forever linked to the rise of the Baby Boomer generation, has generated wistful reminiscences of his vitality and calls for unselfish change for a nation.

Obviously, Kennedy’s iconic status means that 2017 will be full of special events, programs, and new books on his life, legacy, and legend.

One of the most anticipated books, JFK: A Vision for America in Words and Pictures, is a huge compendium of Kennedy’s most important, brilliant speeches, accompanied by short essays offering commentary and reflections by some of America’s leading political thinkers, top historians, preeminent writers and artists, and world leaders like the Dali Lama.

Enriched with more than 500 photographs and facsimiles of historical artifacts, it provides an impressive account of JFK’s life and presidency, and depicts his compelling vision for a new America.

The just-released book was compiled by Kennedy’s nephew and honored scholar Stephen Kennedy Smith and Douglas Brinkley, one of America’s most respected historians.

Smith and Brinkley are currently on a tour touting their new celebratory volume. Here is some of what they had to say recently at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

“We wanted to put together a framework for understanding the country and President Kennedy’s vision for America, the world, and the future,” Smith said. “We wanted to capture the zeitgeist of a nation and that was our direction. 1917 (JFK’s birth year) to 1963 represents the height of America’s popularity in the world.”

Kennedy, with his emphasis on change as represented in his campaign tagline A New Frontier, won an extremely close election in 1960 over his Republican opponent Richard Nixon. To those who voted then, Kennedy represented something new, while Nixon represented the old status quo.

Kennedy’s campaign was designed to allow “the younger turks to replace the older generation,” a theme that was to resonate throughout the 60s, even after Kennedy’s death, Brinkley noted.

As both campaigner and president, Kennedy was lauded for his keen intellect, brilliant wit, and self-deprecating humor. “John F. Kennedy was a very funny guy,” Brinkley said. “He had the ability for self-deprecation which everyone likes. I know it’s hard to believe today, but people would leave a JFK press conference laughing.”

One of Kennedy’s biggest successes was his use of the world’s newest political medium – television.

“Television was a game-changer in politics,” Brinkley explained. “Before TV, candidates were chosen in smoke-filled rooms. Kennedy understood television and its power. You know who didn’t – Richard Nixon. Nixon was radio. Kennedy was TV.”

As president, Kennedy faced severe challenges, all remembered by the eldest Baby Boomers and many of them still unanswered today such as relations with Russia, nuclear weapons, Civil Rights, the need for space exploration, and concerns about economic inequality, the environment, education, immigration, and war and peace.

One of the greatest questions arising from Kennedy’s death is how would he have handled America’s involvement with Vietnam, an issue that came to dominate the 60s and much of the 70s.

“The reality is that no one will ever know,” Smith, who has a note from his uncle reading “Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam” tacked to his office wall that his Aunt Jackie gave him. “I believe he would have withdrawn after (the election in) ’64. I think that is one of the greatest tragedies in losing JFK.”

Brinkley concurs. “John Kennedy gave an interview to [CBS newsman Walter] Cronkite and indicated that he wasn’t going to get roped into a long war. Of course, Vietnam will be of constant debate, but [at the time of his death)] JFK was working with [Russian leader Nikita)] Kruschev and was in a real peace mode,” the historian said.

Smith added that Kennedy learned from his early mistakes as president such as his approval of an attack on Fidel Castro’s Cuba that eventually resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the world waited for 12 tension-filled days in October of 1962 to see if a possible earth-ending nuclear holocaust would be unleashed between Russia and America.

“Today, he is known as a liberal, but he always balanced his idealism with a practical sense of what needed to be done,” Smith contended.

In the decades since his death, a veritable industry has grown up around conspiracy theories postulating why JFK was assassinated, who actually did the killing, and where did the authorization for the murder come from.

However, in their book, Smith and Brinkley by design devote only a single essay to the assassination. That contribution was submitted by celebrated author Don DeLillo, whose award-winning novel Libra dealt with the deadly day in Dallas. Here is how DeLillo concluded his essay entitled “Where Were You When”:

Where were you when.

This is what we said to each other as the months and years passed.

In the aftermath, we entered an age of paranoia that bred countless theories concerning the assassination. That moment in Dallas was the pivot in history that would change the way we live and think, day to day, year to year. We became another America, steeped in foreign wars, racial violence, and presidential scandal …

The gun and the camera. Into the new century this pairing has become the theme that brings us a fleeting set of violent images nearly hour by hour, wherever we are, whenever we look …

Even though he was only president for 1,000 days, it can easily be argued that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the first famous man for the new Baby Boom generation. He was joined by other Boomer heroes – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, and John Lennon.

Of course, all four of those iconic greats were also silenced prematurely by fatal shots from an assassin’s gun.

But while death can take away the life of a great man or woman, it can never remove the power and influence of their words and deeds.

Smith and Brinkley have proven that contention with JFK: A Vision for America. If you choose to read the book, I’m sure you will agree. And I know you will have a much better understanding of the 1960s, whether you are a Baby Boomer who lived through those times or a member of a later generation trying to understand them.

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.