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Memories of JFK linger 40 years later
Memories of JFK linger 40 years later
Memories of JFK linger 40 years later
Assassination ended a life, created a legacy
BY CHRISTINE HARVEY
Times Staff Writer
Forty years after his death, the memory of President John F. Kennedy still evokes feelings of nostalgia and despair for the loss of a life cut short by an assassin's bullet.
Just 46 years old, Kennedy was struck down in his prime on Nov. 22, 1963. All that remains now is the promise of what could have been.
For an entire generation, Kennedy symbolized hope for a more peaceful world. His youthful exuberance, paired with boyish good looks and an abundance of charisma, energized the nation.
Russia was first in the space race, the Communists ruled neighboring Cuba and race relations seemed 100 years out-of-date. Kennedy sought to change all that.
Though historians and political pundits have challenged Kennedy's legacy, many Americans remember him as one of the nation's best and most beloved presidents. He served just 1,000 days, yet the memory of Camelot lingers.
Inspiring a generation
In his inaugural address, Kennedy uttered what have become his most famous words: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Those words lit a fire under the youth of a nation, to whom a career in public service and a life centered around the idea of volunteerism seemed unlikely at best.
"He really got me involved," said former state Rep. Frank Giglio, D-Calumet City, and a former Thornton Township Democratic Committeeman. "Ask not what your country can do for you -- that stuck with me. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind and break barriers. He set a spark to people, like he did to me."
James Wieser spent 10 years as a public official in Highland and Lake County, and he has continued to serve the residents of Northwest Indiana as an attorney for and a member of various public boards and commissions.
His first memory of Kennedy came in eighth grade, when he was asked to participate in a mock presidential debate. Wieser was cast in the role of Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Kennedy's Republican opponent in the 1960 election. To no one's surprise, the student cast as Kennedy -- the country's first Roman Catholic president -- won the Catholic school's debate.
Afterward, Wieser became interested in Kennedy's candidacy. Here was a guy who seemingly came out of nowhere -- young, good-looking, with an attractive wife and two young children -- who's saying let's put a positive spin on things, Wieser said.
"It was like the personification of the American dream," said Wieser, whose fascination with Kennedy extends to the present day, having just finished the JFK biography, "An Unfinished Life." "It was Camelot."
The times were changing and Kennedy signaled a break from business as usual. He encouraged people to get involved through programs he established, such as the Peace Corps, and, in turn, to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. More recent programs, including AmeriCorps, were created out of Kennedy's legacy.
"I think Kennedy really got people invigorated," Wieser said, lauding JFK's oratorical skills and intellectual prowess. "One, he had a way of lifting the spirits. And two, he had a way of calming you in serious crisis."
Kennedy coalesced the American spirit with his promise to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Many of his other dreams, however, sat on the back burner, trumped by politics and an inability to push controversial legislation through Congress.
Though Kennedy saw no place in America for racial injustice, he accomplished little in the way of eradicating it. In fact, the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- became law during the tenure of Kennedy's vice president and successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.
In the third year of his presidency, Kennedy began voicing stronger opinions on the subject of racial inequality. He sent national guardsmen to the University of Alabama to ensure the safe enrollment of two black students. He also gave a speech about civil rights to a national radio and television audience.
"If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public," Kennedy said June 11, 1963, "if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?"
Former Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, now special assistant to the dean of Valparaiso Law School, was inspired by Kennedy's pronounced commitment to civil rights and equal opportunity for all people. He found Kennedy's speeches quite forward thinking for the time, particularly for a white politician.
However, Hatcher began to think the president was less progressive than he appeared when he declined in August 1963 to attend the March on Washington, during which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
"He did not totally and completely support the march," said Hatcher, who became the country's first black mayor of a large city in 1968. "I was disappointed that he didn't come because I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for the president to make the position of the federal government very clear on those issues."
Now, 40 years after his death, would Kennedy think race relations have changed?
"In some respects, they are worse," Hatcher said. "In some respects, they are better. We're not where I want us to be. No, I think John F. Kennedy would have been appalled at these 40 or 50 years later."
Though he can claim only moderate success in helping to break the race barrier during his short time in office, Kennedy broke a religious one by becoming the country's first and only Roman Catholic president.
"Al Smith cracked the door" said Brian Olszewski, spokesman for the Diocese of Gary, referring to the first Catholic to run for president in 1928. "John F. Kennedy pushed it all the way open. After that, it really became a non-factor."
Kennedy's religious background may have contributed to his sense of stewardship, as well.
"He may certainly have indirectly acted upon those Catholic beliefs that may have been instilled in him," Olszewski said. "He certainly called attention to the fact that you need to give back."
While many people remember Kennedy for his programs and policies, others recall him best through images.
Photographs of Kennedy with his wife and children have contributed to the public's lasting interest in the 35th president, providing people with the notion of intimacy with the family seen as America's closest equivalent to royalty, said Michael Niederman, chairman of the Television Department at Columbia College in Chicago.
Later, pictures of John Jr. saluting his father's casket captured the sorrow of a family in mourning.
Kennedy was the first president to conduct televised live press conferences, but it was his 1960 debate with Nixon before being elected that reinforced his image.
Yahya Kamalipour, head of the Department of Communication and Creative Arts at Purdue University Calumet, said those who saw the debate favored Kennedy, while those who heard it on the radio gave the nod to Nixon. When a competition exists between the eyes and the ears, the eyes always win, Kamalipour said.
Images of Kennedy continue to resonate with people throughout the world, who embraced him during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961, which was reported internationally and contributed to his popularity. Kennedy later drew millions to speeches in France and Germany, during his most famous of which he uttered the now-famous line, "Ich bin ein Berliner."
The last image of the president, however, may be his best known.
Millions have witnessed Kennedy's death on videotape -- the shot to the president's head, Kennedy slumping in his seat, his wife climbing onto the trunk of the convertible in which they were riding, her pink suit splattered with blood.
That image, captured on film by Abraham Zapruder, was among the first of its kind -- an eyewitness account to history in the making and an everlasting testament to what could have been.
"Without a doubt, certainly from a national perspective, he inspired me to understand what is possible and also what your obligations, responsibilities and priorities are," Hatcher said. "You think about all those things when you think about John F. Kennedy. At least I do."
Christine Harvey can be reached at email@example.com or (219) 933-4174.