Published in the Montreal Gazette, November 22, 2013
I was deeply moved reading Jack Todd’s personal recollections about the period of John F. Kennedy’s presidency and what that brief era meant to him – and, ultimately, to me as well. (“The day the world stood still”, Gazette, November 15) Indeed, as an aside, I should say that I agreed essentially with all of what Todd wrote, except his contention that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in committing the foul deed. Just as the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in the late 1970’s, I have always believed that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy. But I digress.
At a relatively young age, I was, perhaps like Todd, more or less a resolute political junkie. From the very beginning of my teenage years, those who chose to serve in public life intrigued me greatly. Looking back, I figure I owed this somewhat unusual state of affairs – at least for an adolescent – to none other than John F. Kennedy.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of his tragic assassination, it is perhaps an opportune time to re-examine what indeed he represented to me and so many others at that time.
Like Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy was very much an outsider to the Washington establishment when he was elected President of the United States in 1960 at the young age of only 43. Although some argue that Kennedy was the youngest man to serve as president, he was not. That distinction went to the eccentric Theodore Roosevelt who was only 42 when he inherited the Oval Office following the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley. Nevertheless, JFK was the youngest man ever elected to the presidency.
On November 22, fifty years ago today, I was in my biology class in a high school in Laval just after our lunch hour break. Suddenly, one of the school’s French teachers darted into the classroom with the news that Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Surprisingly (at least to me) our biology teacher expressed great pleasure at the news as he had always believed that JFK was, despite his after death stature, somewhat ambivalent about the movement for black equality. In fact, despite my continued appreciation for the late president, I am today willing to concede that there was perhaps a little truth in that opinion.
Nevertheless, as I was one of the few in my high school with any political interest, that same, otherwise popular instructor (who later went on to make a lengthy career teaching history at Vanier College, and who is now deceased) tried to engage me in an exchange of ideas about Kennedy, and why I was seemingly so upset at his murder. I refused the invitation (we were in a biology class after all!) and I was subsequently told to leave the room.
To this day, I do not understand how an ‘educator’ could have acted in that fashion, such that when the tables were turned in 1981 and I was a teacher in a local high school, I kept an absolute professional neutrality before my students at the time of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.
It is not always easy to explain one’s admiration for JFK to others who never knew the context in which we all lived at the time. Ironically, his short two years and ten months in office were probably the zenith of the Cold War. Suffice to say that Kennedy was both an articulate (no one since 1961 has delivered an Inaugural Address with the same dazzling effect) and intelligent man who, despite heavy hawkish pressure in Washington to invade Cuba, left the Soviet Union a face – saving way out of the Missile Crisis of 1962, thus avoiding a possible nuclear war. Eight months later, in one of the more remarkable speeches of his dynamic presidency, John Kennedy challenged the American people before a gathering at American University in Washington to examine their own attitudes towards world peace, and the USSR itself – an unheard of gesture in American diplomacy.
For me, he was a breath of fresh air on the world stage. With Kennedy in the Oval Office, the United States went from one of the oldest presidents to one of the youngest, from one of the most dour to one of the most charismatic, from one of the more conservative to one of the more liberal administrations in that country’s history.
I, and many others, will always wonder how things might have been different had he lived, and been re-elected in 1964. His continued fascination for so many today may be partly due to the fact that those who remember him, and his eternally young ‘Camelot’ White House, recall at the same time their own precious youthful idealism as well.
(Below, Dallas motorcade, moments before his assassination)