I was 4 ½ years old when I delivered my first news report.
It was to my father in our home in the Chicago suburbs.
A bricklayer, he had just come home in midafternoon from one of those remote job sites where in those days you wouldn’t know a major world news event happened.
There were no radios or TVs around and he apparently didn’t have the car radio on during his drive home, because, according to my parents, he didn’t believe me at first when I ran up to him and said, “Daddy, they shot the president.”
But it was so.
Today’s young people have similar memories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, where they were and what they were doing when the planes struck those towers. For me and my generation, barely, and certainly the one preceding it, the same thoughts race through the mind about Nov. 22, 1963.
I knew very little about John F. Kennedy then, but over the years I began to learn, my first sources of information being the copies of the Chicago Sun-Times my parents saved from that horrible weekend.
As a teenager I read his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, and its stories of U.S. senators who sacrificed their careers to support unpopular proposals that were nonetheless in the nation’s best interest became part of my memory. Among my favorite stories were those of Kansas’ Edmund G. Ross’ “not guilty” vote in 1868 that spared President Andrew Johnson from being removed from office, Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster’s support of the Compromise of 1850 that staved off the Civil War for another decade, and Texas’ Sam Houston, an anti-slavery Southerner who refused to support the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that would have allowed slavery to continue in the West.
Kennedy admired bold action, and certainly these tales of political bravery and acumen published in 1955 were in concert with his most famous utterance, in his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
As I grew older and examined his short presidency, I found Kennedy’s policies to be a mixed bag of legislative and foreign-affairs initiatives I agreed and disagreed with.
But I was always drawn back to that day 50 years ago this weekend, asking why so many people, including so many who were no fans of the young president, cried when they learned of his death.
Maybe it was that he will always be young, he and his beautiful wife and their precocious children. That’s part of it, because he exuded such an image of energy and forward movement, although in later years we learned of physical afflictions, aggravated by his injuries suffered in World War II, that made him a much sicker man than he and his aides let on.
Maybe it was that he was one of the most intelligent and insightful people to serve as president.
“And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity,” he said in a commencement address at American University in June 1963 in a quote recounted on his presidential library’s website. “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
But perhaps it was that he inspired so many to go into public service, which he represented as a noble and righteous endeavor demanded of a democracy’s best citizens called upon to preserve democracy, to defend freedom.
He had a way of encouraging people to reach a bit further beyond themselves, beyond what they may have believed were their limitations.
And he continues to speak to us today.
“But I think the American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack,” the library’s website recounts him saying in his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in July 1960. “The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some 20 years ago: if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.”
I look at photos and film footage of him, smiling, looking up and squinting his eyes into the future, and each time, even though I know that had he lived he would be 96 years old, still, I miss him.
Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here each weekend. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.