Vail Daily column: Kennedy inspired hope in America |

Vail Daily column: Kennedy inspired hope in America

Jack Van Ens
Valley Voices
Jack Van Ens

Long after April 19, 1775, when shots heard around the world marked the Revolutionary War’s start, writer Henry James stood at Old North Bridge in Concord, Mass. He remembered the battle between patriots and Red Coats. James commented, “The fight had been the hinge … on which the large revolving future was to move.”

Other such moments have acted like history’s hinge, too. Those who lived through cataclysmic events of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor find it seared into their memories. 9/11 serves as another pivotal moment in history when time stood still.

As a sophomore in high school, I shall never forget the John F. Kennedy assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. It makes me still sad to recount President Kennedy’s shocking death. The half-century that distances us from it doesn’t soften feelings of regret or tone down thoughts of what might have been if Kennedy had served at least a full term.

JFK galvanized youthful enthusiasm. He convinced citizens to achieve whatever their hearts set out to do. Kennedy opened doors of opportunity. His upbeat personality and “we can do it” cheerleading oiled history’s hinges. Americans dared tackle the future because their president did.

Today, with politics in disarray, where’s the New Frontier’s hope, resonating from the 1960s?

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For those who lived through it, who can forget black and white images on TV of muffled drums, a rider-less horse with stirrups backwards and the late president’s young son John-John saluting the coffin? CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite, looked at the clock, took off his thick black-rimmed glasses, peered into the camera and with angst announced President John F. Kennedy’s death. We shuddered at this miserable news.

British philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin reflected feelings of a distraught free world. He wrote to Kennedy’s good friend, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “I do not wish to exaggerate: Perhaps it is not at all similar to what men may have felt when Alexander the Great died, but the sadness and the sense of exceptional hope for a large number of people suddenly cut off in mid-air is, I think, unique in our lifetime … ”

“Exceptional hope” shattered — yes, that’s how Americans felt when President Kennedy was murdered. Scripture advises that we “rejoice in hope and be patient in tribulation” (Romans 12:13). When an ache suffocates our breath, however, and coils around our hearts, hope is reduced to a plaintive whisper.

Kennedy epitomized hope. His presidency was the first to use TV as a dramatic vehicle to project his jaunty mood and zesty personality. JFK bantered with the press corps and famously wiggled with a quip from answering difficult questions. Little did TV viewers realize his healthy bronzed complexion was caused by drugs he took to relieve an aching back. His attractive family, good looks and charm — combined with ability to express the American Dream’s ideals — energized the nation’s soul.

Americans believed their country possessed a future. The U.S. lived by hope. Citizens showed confidence their standard of living would improve. They cared for the poor and stayed connected as the Interstate Highway System — started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower — was completed. A moon landing was in reach, as the U.S. aimed for the stars.

John F. Kennedy didn’t let the country settle for mediocrity. He motivated citizens to believe the best was yet to be. Switch self-interest for sacrifice, he advised. Swap greed for good.

Kennedy, accepting the Democratic nomination for president, spoke before 80,000 supporters at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on July 15, 1960. His glowing words, resonant with hope, came to be known as the “New Frontier Speech.”

JFK desired to break with our past when people felt defeated before new challenges. He turned from divisive politics. A meltdown in cooperation occurs when citizens are convinced that government doesn’t work for them. They suspect elected officials are in the business of robbing citizens of their rights rather than working together for the common good. These “old ways will not do,” asserted Kennedy.

He warned about “slippage in our intellectual and moral strength.” A cure for this malady? JFK tapped into our nation’s yearning to do better. “The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises; it is a set of challenges!” he exclaimed. “It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook. It holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”

“I never knew how his brief and brilliant leadership,” confessed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “had touched the imagination and hearts of the common people until this terrible tragedy indeed ended his career.”

Saved in my files is the Nov. 23, 1963, extra edition of “The Detroit Free Press.” Its bold headlines flash grim news: “Kennedy slain! Johnson president.” Now, the newsprint is saffron, the yellowish edges of the pages frayed — symbolic, perhaps, of Washington’s recent shutdown.

Today, with politics in disarray, where’s the New Frontier’s hope, resonating from the 1960s?

Let’s use the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination to reject cynicism, reject “my way or take the highway,” and reject politics of personal aggrandizement. Instead, let us restore hope.

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