Culture

The Passed Torch

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower
This Pulitzer Prize-winning photo shows President John F. Kennedy, left, and former president Dwight D. Eisenhower as they walk along a path at Camp David, where the two met to discuss the Bay of Pigs invasion. | Photo: Paul Vathis | John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President, Camp David, Bay Of Pigs,

What can we do for our country?

To sum up President John F. Kennedy's life with his famous "Ask not" quote, a policy initiative, sex scandal or assassination is akin to regarding "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a book about a young girl in Alabama.

49 years and 6 months after his heartbreaking assassination, President Kennedy looms over American politics as the standard bearer for a new message, vitality in office, and what happens when the will to accomplish overtakes political and personal barriers. It is improper to use this space as a catalogue of legislative or foreign policy achievements; on what would have been his 96th birthday, consider the effect of President Kennedy on our nation, and ourselves.

Religion
President Kennedy never wanted to be the "Catholic candidate"; the central question amongst Protestants regarded Kennedy's ability to make decisions independent of the Vatican. Imagine asking a black politician if he could make decisions independent of his blackness or if a gay judge could rule on heterosexual divorce. What does it say when Catholic candidates for office (think Vice President Joe Biden) is assumed to be pro-life simply because the position of the Catholic Church is against abortion? 53 years later the same well-worn tropes about Catholicism and politics remain.

President Kennedy defused the Catholic baiting by relegating the issue to the realm of the idiots. He said, "I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition of holding that office." President Kennedy often spoke of a complete cleave between religion and state. He emphasized that there is no official state religion and openly pined for another non-Protestant to run for office and not be subjected to religion-baiting. President Kennedy was also a pragmatist and knew that 1960 was his turn and the scrutiny would be repeated in years to come, a thought that undoubtedly saddened the idealistic candidate from Massachusetts.

President Kennedy also sounded this alarm: "If this election was decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance to be President the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people." In 2013 can America say that these concerns are behind us? What happens if a Jew or Muslim runs for President? What if a gay candidate becomes the standard bearer of their party? Our government presumed to govern independent of any religious influence, Americans ought to heed President Kennedy's message of simultaneous religious inclusion and exclusion. Any person of any faith (or lack thereof) can serve by simultaneously enclosing their faith solely to the realm of their private existence.

Catholics should regard President Kennedy as a hero, not because he was the first Catholic President, but because President Kennedy bravely cleared the way for all citizens to run for office independent of what they are rather to be judged who they are.

The Cold War
President Kennedy regarded the dangers of the Cold War as a nuclear Sword of Damocles. In October of 1962 the world was held hostage as the Soviet Union with the aid of Fidel Castro deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote that President Kennedy would make a fuss but ultimately acquiesce to the placement of the missiles.

President Kennedy could have launched an invasion of Cuba. He was urged to invade by the Joint Chiefs of Staff but dismissed the idea saying that Allies would perceive the U.S. as "trigger-happy cowboys." Over the next 13 days President Kennedy solved the problem by meticulously working the problem. His announcement of the quarantine (specifically avoiding the word "blockade" because a blockade is an act of war) exemplifies meticulous, thoughtful approaches to handling a crisis of such serious magnitude.

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy

In 1961, the deteriorating political situation in Laos posed a serious concern in U.S. foreign policy when President John F. Kennedy took office. | Photo: The White House archives |
In the years following the Cuban Missile Crisis, what President would have handled the situation so deftly? President Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba and to remove outdated missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing all armaments from Cuba. President Kennedy made concessions that were already part of his administration's policy. Would President Richard Nixon make such shrewd calculations? Could President George W. Bush show enough restraint to negotiate a peaceful settlement? Is it possible that President Barack Obama would unite the country so thoroughly that nearly every American would rally to support removal of missiles and a promise not to invade Cuba?

President Kennedy, himself a war hero, understood the cost of war and the irrevocable nature of human life. Through his cool, meticulous deliberation he set a standard in handling an international crisis; Kennedy was viewed as the victor and Khrushchev was embarrassed and lost power two years later. This standard has not been met in the years since ' President Johnson bungled Vietnam, President Nixon secretly invaded Laos and Cambodia, President Carter allowed Iran to take Americans hostage for 444 days, President Reagan sold arms to Iran in order to release those hostages, President Clinton allowed genocides to occur in Bosnia and Rwanda and President Bush invaded a country that has never attacked America.

Innovation
Less well-known accomplishments of the Kennedy administration include explosive growth of American GDP through sound fiscal and monetary policies; Kennedy also fought corporate greed in his memorable standoff with U.S. Steel. For any other President these accomplishments would be center in the building of their legacies, but the awesome events in the years of 1961-1963 overshadow incredible domestic accomplishments. President Kennedy championed equality and determination. Through his justice department, headed by his brother Robert Kennedy, the enforcement of the law in regards to integration became real as the Eisenhower administration simply paid the notion lip service.

When the Supreme Court forced the University of Mississippi to admit James Meredith, the challenge was posed to the Kennedy administration. The riots on campus intended to block Meredith's registration were intense, taking the lives of 2 people. President Kennedy sent in the National Guard to quell riots and force integration. He would do the same when George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama.

President Kennedy attempted to get a Civil Rights bill passed and mused upon proposing the bill that its existence would derail any attempts to accomplish anything else legislatively. He was correct, the introduction of the Civil Rights Act caused Southern Democrats to shamefully vote down President Kennedy's other important civil rights project: a bill aimed at alleviating the effects of the extreme poverty in Appalachia.

President Kennedy's dreams of a new world in America also coincided with the dreams of a nation to explore areas that were deemed impossible to explore. Domestically, these areas were civil rights and poverty. Internationally, President Kennedy signed the first test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union, a giant leap in creating peace for all mankind. Scientifically, President Kennedy served notice of America's prowess on a grander scale.

Friendship 7
Friendship 7

In 1962, John H. Glenn, Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth in the spaceship Friendship 7. | Photo: |
America experienced great success in the Space Race in 1962: John Glenn successfully completed 3 orbits of Earth and returned safely. A few months after Glenn's orbital flight President Kennedy set the goal to send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth, in his words: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard." President Kennedy declared that weapons of mass destruction are not to be put in space, that space exploration is to be for peaceful purposes only.

In 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and returned safely to Earth, an emphatic answer to President Kennedy's challenge. Has America taken up such great challenges since? The rise of the information age has yielded amazing new worlds opened for young and old alike. Since the end of the Apollo program no astronaut has left low Earth orbit, and to borrow a line from Aaron Sorkin our space program is the equivalent of Columbus discovering the New World in 1492 and Spain deciding just to explore Mallorca. If President Kennedy were alive today, would he implore us to explore Mars? He would definitely champion astronauts from every nationality working together on the International Space Station, but what would he think about an American space program that doesn't send its astronauts to space anymore?

John F. Kennedy and son
John F. Kennedy and son

President John F. Kennedy holding hands with son John F. Kennedy Jr. at the White House. | Photo: JFK Collection, ZUMA Press |
Legacy
The torch President Kennedy carried to the Oval Office on January 20th, 1961 still burns today in Arlington, VA. The challenge for Americans is living up to that legacy. President Kennedy didn't promise much in the way normal politicians dole out promises, he issued challenges. He challenged us not simply inherit the great promise of liberty, but to make liberty matter. He forced us to confront the reality of our country head on, with an irascible can-do spirit even though his body was breaking down almost daily. The anniversary of his birth, and in November the 50th anniversary of his death, should be a clarion for all Americans to renew their spirit, roll up their sleeves and confront the illnesses of poverty, polarization and prejudice that still infect our nation. An assassin's bullet felled the man who personified so much of our hopes and dreams; let us not allow the assassin's bullets of doubt and difficulty to keep us from giving President Kennedy the America he longed to build.

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Updated May 10, 2017 12:30 PM EDT | More details

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