“Ask not …"
More than half a century ago, John F. Kennedy uttered perhaps the most memorable line of any presidential inauguration speech. He challenged Americans to put aside self-interest for the greater good so the nation could realize its full potential as a beacon of freedom and compassion and explorer of the heavens. That challenge resonates as we pause to honor the memory of a young president killed 50 years ago today by an assassin on the streets of Dallas. It is a dark moment seared into the memories of millions of Americans, and it scarred a nation that remains remarkably resilient.
Kennedy was in office a scant 1,000 days, and his legacy remains an unfinished tableau of mixed results. But as the first president who capitalized on the power of television and exploited its powerful potential for a charismatic, visionary commander in chief, JFK set the standard for projecting the nation's strength and influence around the world and for engaging millions of Americans at home.
The United States was a different place in November 1963. The population of about 189 million people is roughly two-thirds of 2013 America. The Internet, cellphones and iPads were yet to be imagined. The Beatles were months away from their first trip here, and The Beverly Hillbillies was the most popular television series. When Kennedy took office, the interstate highway system begun under his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, covered just over 10,000 miles.
Less then 20 years removed from the end of World War II, America was still acclimating itself to its burgeoning stature as the globe's foremost economic and military superpower. It was a role embraced by the arrival of a youthful, seemingly robust president who embodied the archetype of a Cold Warrior — a heroic World War II combat veteran bent on stemming the widening influence of communism while pushing a domestic agenda to alleviate poverty, improve education and, while somewhat late to the issue, begin the often long, fractious political battle to ensure the civil rights of all Americans regardless of the color of their skin.
In his brief time in office, Kennedy is perhaps best remembered for his brinkmanship during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when he forced the Soviet Union to remove offensive nuclear weapons from the island nation 90 miles from the U.S. shore. He complemented the soft power of diplomacy through the creation of the Peace Corps, which remains a vivid symbol of America's obligations to improve the lives of millions of people around the world. And in the afterglow of Camelot, Kennedy reminded the nation that its embrace of the arts and culture is intrinsic to any society's character.
The 35th president's New Frontier pushed Americans to believe in the impossible, to literally reach for the stars in committing to expand the space program and land a man on the moon by 1969.
No president is without his flaws. Kennedy's reckless philandering and his failure to fully inform the American people of the full extent of his health problems, including Addison's disease, as well as his growing reliance on medications were too often left out of the idealized caricatures of the slain president. And it should not be forgotten that at the time of his death, Kennedy had begun the early stages of America's quagmire in Vietnam by sending 12,000 U.S. troops into the conflict.
Because of the cruel vagaries of history, we will never know what JFK ultimately would have achieved had he lived to serve two terms as president. But the hopes of what might have been linger 50 years after one of America's most heartbreaking days.