Nov. 22, 2013
At my recent high school reunion, several of my classmates remarked on the “Happy Days” we had lived through. It was true. Our class entered junior high the autumn that Sputnik was launched, 1957, and we took our SAT’s the Saturday after the peaceful conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962. In those years, no wars, no riots, no mass shootings, no political scandals, and most emphatically, no political assassinations clouded our futures.
Going off to college at University of Virginia that fall, my Long Island upbringing had not prepared me for what I would find. We were all looking forward to Thanksgiving and our first trip home as “First Year Men,” the quaint designation of freshmen at this very traditional Southern school. I was in my dorm room cramming for my French class that afternoon when Miss Harriet, the maid, a black woman, came rushing down the hall wailing and crying out that someone had shot the president.
I quickly went to her and reassured her that such things did not happen in this country. One of the guys in Humphreys House was merely playing a ghoulish trick on her, I said, trying to comfort her. We went to the common area where a television was on. It was almost never on in the middle of the day. But several other First Year Men were gathered around watching, shushing Miss Harriet and me. We stared wordlessly as the national news preempted the local Richmond TV station. Soon, Walter Cronkite of CBS News announced that President Kennedy was dead in Dallas, Texas.
I made a point of reading the New York Times every day, but I didn’t even know he was in Dallas. No one knew what we should do. French classes, all classes, were forgotten. Miss Harriet, who had grown up in the segregated South, knew a lot more about the things that happen in America than I did. The only thing I could think of doing was going to church. I was unchurched at that time. And it would be another twelve years before I would join a church, but on that grim, gray Friday afternoon, I felt, we all felt, we should go to church and pray.
So off we trudged to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the Corner, across the street from Jefferson’s Rotunda. The early sunset in that gathering darkness was obscured by the suddenly overcast sky. I do not recall the priest’s words, but they were doubtless from the Book of Common Prayer. Columnist George Will has written that that ancient prayer book gives us our very idea of stateliness. The words were those read for the death of Kings and Prime Ministers and commoners alike. Through the centuries, English sailors, often illiterate themselves, demanded that their captains “read the words” over the bodies of their dead shipmates.
I was far more familiar with President Kennedy’s record as Chief of State. He had pledged “to get America moving again,” and so, it seemed, he had. When the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching the first man in space in April 1961, President Kennedy stole a march on our rivals by saying America would go to the Moon. And by the end of the decade, too.
Kennedy had thrilled so many of us, especially the young, with his boldness and his dashing spirit.
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
He would later say that America had thrown its hat over the wall of space and had no choice but to go after it. We knew that Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev had made the space race his own vehicle for legitimizing godless Communism. He had specifically chosen the young cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin to be the first man in space because Gagarin was such an outspoken atheist. When reporters asked the grinning young Russian what he saw in his orbital flight around the world, he said: “Nyet boga” (No God).
President Kennedy awarded medals to American astronauts like John Glenn. When the intrepid Marine Colonel was launched into space, the ground crewmen called out: “Godspeed, John Glenn!”
Kennedy also stood strong for civil rights. Like President Eisenhower before him, Kennedy was willing to risk political capital for high principle. He put before Congress the most far-reaching bill to end segregation in public accommodations. If we didn’t take part in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s massive civil rights march in August of that year, we surely watched it on television and read about it in TIME and Newsweek. Dr. King spoke of Civil Rights in specifically religious terms: “Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty, I’m free at last!”
In both of these areas, Civil Rights and the Space Race, Kennedy left a legacy for others to build on. Of course, the greatest issue of the day was the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (USSR) and the worldwide threat of Communism.
President Kennedy gave a masterful speech at the Berlin Wall the previous June. He effortlessly spoke to a throng of appreciative West Germans. He prodded the Soviets, saying that for all the faults of Western societies, no one ever had to build a wall to keep their people in. He said to all who were doubtful of the real differences between East and West, “let them come to Berlin.” (Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen!)
Eloquently quoting the Latin maxim civis romanum sum — I am a citizen of Rome — as the ancients boasted, Kennedy said today the proudest statement of free men was “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (I am a Berliner).The world took note: America had a strong and determined leader.
We cannot remain unaware of the darker side of Camelot. The tawdry stories of Jack Kennedy’s relentless adultery, his degradation of young women, will tarnish the brilliant image he so carefully cultivated.
Still, to the young people of America and the world, who knew none of this, John F. Kennedy was a model and an inspiration. It’s hard to imagine how America could have prevailed over militant atheism and Communism without his forceful leadership, without keeping his promises on Civil Rights and the Race to the Moon.
That’s the John Kennedy whose legacy shines still. When the U.S. finally landed on the Moon on July 19, 1969, an anonymous visitor to Arlington National Cemetery left a note at the grave marked by the eternal flame. Kennedy’s bold challenge had been met. The note said: “The Eagle has landed.”
When the Eagle landed, and before setting foot on the Moon, Astronaut Buzz Aldrin made a point of celebrating communion with his Presbyterian congregation in Houston. As such momentous times, whether of triumph or of tragedy, we yearn for transcendant meaning. And at such times, faith alone fills that yearning.