This week is the 58th commemoration of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy quoted these lines in tribute to his brother, “When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”
This week, we remember John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Think of it. He could very well have still been with us. Think of the difference in this world if he had lived the vigorous and robust life he could have had. Over a half-century after his assassination on that terrible day in Dallas, his hold on our imagination does not wane. It is important to reflect on the reasons why.
We live in a petty era colored by false pieties, moral relativism, and obsequious pandering to the lowest common denominator. JFK matters to us still because he made courage tenable. Courage to be just. Courage to be compassionate. Courage to be dreamers. And he challenged all our resolves to make it so.
The tragedy of his death, the lost hopes and possibilities, haunt us still. In many ways and at all times. The writer Mary McGrory, who then worked as a White House aide, said on the day of his murder that we shall never smile again. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, also working in the White House then, answered, “No, we may smile again, but we’ll never be young again.” For many, it was the day hope died. JFK was the first post-war leader who inspired hope, a quality that was understandably lost after the descent of civilized Europe into the barbaric bloodlust of genocide. Many historians call the postwar era the post-apocalyptic age. One would be hard put to argue. But hope, like courage, rests not on the shoulders of any one man but lives on from the testament of that man in the hearts of all. All we need is the resolve to remember, and to carry on.
It is in that remembrance that we answer the question of many scholars as to what JFK’s legacy really was. His Presidency too short to see the fulfillment of many of his boldest initiatives, how is it that he captures our imaginations still? Yes, he demonstrated that in foreign policy – whether during the Missile Crisis or the start of nuclear test bans – coexistence need not mean confrontation nor capitulation. Yes, in civil rights he not only sent federal troops for the dignity of one man, James Meredith, to exercise his right to education at the University of Mississippi but spoke words to the nation on equality that had not been heard since Lincoln. Yes, he put forth the foundations of what became medicare. Yet, the real answer rests in his words as much as his deeds. For those words, those ideas, not only made the progressive legislation of the sixties a reality but they still make us see possibilities in ourselves that we thought unimaginable.
They held out the vision of a generosity of spirit that could realize the ancient dream of the brotherhood of man. Whether on the survival and success of liberty, or the fight for civil rights for all regardless of color or creed, or the dreams of man’s capacity to conquer the stars. They challenged us to vigorous service and sacrifice in our daily lives. And most of all, they dared us to be brave. They lit the flame of courage within each of us that made us all understand that the indomitable spirit of freedom inevitably triumphs over the dark forces of tyranny. Perhaps, that is the greatest quality of leadership. To make people bolder, braver, better than they ever thought possible.
Perhaps at no time since he was cut down has the world been in need of such hope and such courage. It is for that reason that his words stay with us. At no time since the Second World War have the free been so full of fear, fear of being impotent to decide their own lives. At no time since that era has appeasement of terror and villainy been so endemic. Kennedy understood these dangers well. In his 1940 best-selling book “Why England Slept” he wrote “It is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only by preparing for war.” Today, history repeats itself. Today, so many countries rest, as Bruce Bawer has so eloquently phrased in “While Europe Slept”, in “new cloaks for the old tyrannies.”
The greatest tribute to John F. Kennedy is that his words and vision during his “one brief shining moment” remain relevant as calls of conscience for us today. And if we do not answer those calls, if we do not respond to conscience, then years from now people will ask how it came to be that the family of the free was so willingly complicit in its own self-abnegation.
For today, we witness too many leaders demonstrating ignominious surrender to political correctness. We see too many voices of conscience hiding from threats or being intimidated in their expression. We see too marked a submission to those who would subvert individual liberty and subjugate liberal pluralism. We forget JFK’s clarion call in Berlin that, ““Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. I hear it said that West Berlin is militarily untenable, and so was Bastogne, and so, in fact, was Stalingrad. Any danger spot is tenable if men, brave men, will make it so.”
Sadly today, we seem to be surrounded with the message that if one wants to survive, one must sublimate one’s beliefs and one’s courage. That indeed there is nothing worth believing in and certainly nothing worth fighting for. In short, that our culture should not stand for something and be prepared to fall for anything. The British writer Melanie Phillips, has called it “a dialogue of the demented.” It is the mindset of the victimized and the demonized.There could be few more poignant days to remind us all that submission to this bodyguard of lies is not a strategy against existential threat, whether external or internal. Fear enslaves millions psychologically, just as the Berlin Wall in JFK’s time enslaved them physically. The legacy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is the antidote to that fear. JFK marshaled the nobler angels of our spirit. He put himself on the firing line of freedom. And through his words and deeds roused a stagnant world from its lethargic slumber. Let us remember. And, in his words, let us begin anew.
This article was first published in The Suburban, Nov. 22, 2021