Had the horrible events in Dallas not taken place in 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy would be ninety-two years old today.
Few of Kennedy's contemporaries are alive today, those that immediately come to mind are Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-West Virginia), born the November following Kennedy and ailing as I write this; fellow World War II veteran William Warren Scranton; and a little closer to home, Idahoan and fellow Catholic Pete T. Cenarrusa. However, I'd never contend that Kennedy, had he not been killed in Dallas, would be alive today. Kennedy was the victim of a damaged and diseased body. Having spent much of his childhood hospitalized, his short presidency was not without it's physical torments and as the years have passed and we've gained a better understanding of Addison's Disease, some have said it would have shortened Kennedy's life.
Some time ago, a national magazine offered a rendering of what an aged-JFK may have looked like. I remember looking at that image as if it were the most foreign concept my mind had encountered. Ingrained in our collective national memory are the images of the youthful Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby, which has made watching Teddy age and battle brain cancer all the more difficult. We are unaccustomed to watching a Kennedy age and that was not lost on me when I saw the rendering of a much older John F. Kennedy.
Despite being lost to this country entirely too soon and much earlier than my generation has a memory of, there are images and ideals we've come to grasp as if they are never ending and ageless. While many in my generation are fighting for our country in wars on two fronts, some of us are graduating from college and beginning our careers in a world that would be as foreign to John Kennedy as an aged version of him is foreign to us.
One of Kennedy's speeches that I've always been drawn to is that given at American University for the 1963 commencement ceremony. President Kennedy was able to quote who I consider to be among the greatest Poet Laureates, John Masefield, and did so with the remarkable grasp of literature and poetry I admire so much about the late president. In the beginning of his remarks at American, he quoted Masefield's description of what the University should be: "[A] place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see."
I wonder if Kennedy believed his collegiate career to have offered him that very atmosphere and if the commencement speaker upon his graduation from Harvard offered him the insight to draw upon Masefield that June of 1963 when he was asked to speak at American. It is quite possible that the poet Carl Sandburg offered the commencement address at Harvard in 1940. Whether the ailing and soon-to-be enlisted Kennedy was in attendance when Harvard offered Sandburg an honorary degree is unclear, but Kennedy's respect and appreciation for poetry remained. Was it a slight to Carl Sandburg when Kennedy picked Robert Frost, Sandburg's rival, to recite his work at Kennedy's inaugural or was Frost simply Kennedy's favorite poet? This is merely an aside and doesn't change the fact that Kennedy's speech at American remains one of his most quoted and referred to speeches. For a man so well known for his use of words and talent for public speaking, that his speech at American is revered says a lot about the power of that address.
So vibrant and full of hope for our country, Kennedy offered an almost Utopian vision for the class of 1963. Contrasted with whatever vision has been offered across this country on behalf of the class of 2009 and you'll find that the world is a very different place than the one led by President Kennedy.
We may have a forward-thinking president in the White House, but we have a country brought to its knees by a bad economy, mismanaged wars, and threats from various culprits. We lack the ambition and drive that guided the hand of a young president as he laid out a plan to put a man on the moon within the decade. We lack the bipartisanship that once allowed political leaders to give speeches to graduating classes without mention of party principles or their own accomplishments. A commencement speech should be about those in the audience who are setting out on their own for the first time, not about a speaker and his or her connections. This realization of what a commencement speech should be came to me recently as I read the commencement address given before my friends at the University of Idaho. We are, in short, lacking the attitude in ourselves and in our leaders to set goals as lofty as putting a man on the moon. There is so much we can learn from the man who would have been ninety-two today.
In Kennedy's speech at American, he closed with a string of statements that are rather poignant today:
We have gone to war in two countries, one in response to one of the darkest days in our history and one without cause or at least not without the cause we stated as justification in the beginning. We are now a nation that does in fact start war and we must ultimately hope to return to being that nation Kennedy spoke of, the nation that others look to as lacking the aggressive nature required to start wars. Oh, how a post-Bush world might have disappointed our thirty-fifth president.
"The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough--more than enough--of war and hate and oppression."
I have to think, had Kennedy lived he may never have actually made it to the age of ninety-two, but think of all the possibilities, all the influence he would have continued to have, had he lived just a bit longer. I like to think the world would have been better with him in it, just as I like to think that we do in fact learn from our history.
(Kennedy's commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963 is available to listen to via the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.)