In a 1973 Miami Herald article about the 10th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, I was quoted as saying, “I don’t think we will feel again the same kind of hope we had with JFK, the positive feelings we had about him and the country.” All these years later I would still say the same thing. And yet how is it that President Kennedy, a man who was born 100 years ago May 29, remains an inspiration to hundreds of thousands of aging baby boomers who were just coming of age during his presidency?
In the 1960s, families gathered around the television every night, and almost all the information we kids received was on three channels. No cable, no satellite, no social media. So after eight years of watching a considerably older president on television, the youthful senator from Massachusetts with an attractive wife was far more compelling for our generation. And for kids whose parents were World War II veterans, the story of JFK’s heroism certainly added luster to the image.
My family wasn’t political, yet the 1960 campaign electrified something inside of me. My neighbor was a Democratic committeman who took me to hear Kennedy speak. It was fun. I decided to run for eighth-grade class president — and won. A month later John F. Kennedy won his election. It was November, and both John Kennedy and I were undefeated in presidential elections. All seemed right with the world.
Beyond the Kennedy aura there was the substance of Kennedy’s words. He was aspirational in a way that made things seem possible. Instead of watching rockets imploding on launch and hearing about Sputnik and Russian dogs in space, he told us we would beat the Soviet Union to the moon. There would be no hiding under our desks because we would close the missile gap. And when Russian missiles were in Cuba, Kennedy would get the Russian bear to back down.
On television we watched the struggle for blacks’ civil rights in America. When the National Guard had to escort James Meredith into the University of Mississippi, President Kennedy used television to engage Americans and have them see the issue as an epic moral battle that was “as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” He asked simply, eloquently, “Are we going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated?”
Throughout his presidency, Kennedy appealed to our idealism. His American exceptionalism spoke to achievement not only as military might but also in the arts and sciences. Kennedy’s last great speech, delivered at American University’s commencement in 1963, sought to mitigate the threat of annihilation of our planet by nuclear weapons. In flowing meter, Kennedy challenged us to rethink how we viewed our role in the world by urging:
“Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave … a genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women — peace for all time.”
For the first time since 1945 there was, if not a thaw in the Cold War, at least a crack in it. By 1963, we were a country on the move. And then, on Nov. 22, 1963, it was all over. Gone with our innocence was the feeling that things will always be OK. But the president’s shocking death also compelled many young Americans to engage in the political life of our country. The ripples of that collective effort continue to shine a light on the challenges we face as a country.
While I dedicated my life to engaging in political change, I continually try to recapture that feeling of excitement and optimism I had as a 12 year old in 1960. It’s impossible, but some part of the spirit remains. JFK’s words and legacy have stood the test of time and remain very much a part of the fabric of so many of our lives.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.