The assassination of President John Kennedy 50 years ago today was recent history’s early experience of complete and utter impact — the kind of impact that caused people to imagine that “anyone alive at the time knew exactly where they were when they heard the news.” There hadn’t been a presidential assassination since William McKinley in 1901.
A guess would be that about one-fifth of Wyoming’s population can remember the day — only 75 thousand of us were 15 or older in 1960.
The youngest man elected president — he was 43 — and the youngest to die — 46 at his assassination, wore his youth on his sleeve.
Starting over was a key theme of the president, who memorably said in his inaugural speech, “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Kennedy did represent a new generation, but his assassination ushered in a troubling era of public violence in American society so quickly on the heels of a new sense of youthful hope and promise that came with his election. It was a presidency that talked constantly of the future, not the past.
But it was followed shortly by the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy as well as the upheaval of the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles. There were later failed attacks on Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.
For the people who were part of Kennedy’s new generation, his death was a kind of end to a sense of promise.
A famous quote from one of the White House workers during the Kennedy funeral was, “We’ll laugh again, we will just never be young again.”
But, of course, others are young. Every generation is a new one, including this one.
A thought to take away from the anniversary of JFK’s assassination is that a sense of new purpose seems to be a constant in our country.
Kennedy’s new generation had been through World War II, the Korean War and the nuclear fears that went with the Cold War. They were the children of school drills to “duck and cover” in case a nuclear bomb were dropped on them by the Soviet Union.
And yet they wanted the world to know that they were committed to human rights and the survival of liberty.
We can become pessimistic about future public servants having the sense of purpose that Kennedy spoke about. But if there’s one truth that continues, it’s that the new generations see their own purpose and possibility.
Who will be the new public servants? They will be born in this century, facing different wars and bitter peace. And we have every reason to hope that they will also be willing “to pay any price and meet any hardship” to ensure the success of liberty.