The country is focused on the legacy of President John F. Kennedy on the milestone of the 50th anniversary of his death this week.
As with many famous people whose lives are tragically cut short in their prime, Kennedy has become an iconic figure in American history. Handsome, debonair, eloquent, a war hero and brimming with charisma, he was a president that was easy to immortalize in the Camelot mystique.
History has been kind to Kennedy and he is generally regarded as one of our greatest presidents.
But a clear-eyed critique of his legacy would have to acknowledge that his glowing image burns brighter than his actual record. That is partly because his presidency lasted only 34 months. He didn’t live long enough to see his ambitious agenda fully realized.
Like most presidents, he endured his share of setbacks perhaps most notably the Bay of Pigs debacle. But there were plenty of other challenges for the young president. In fact, he was in Dallas on the day he was struck down to shore up support in a state that he desperately needed for his re-election campaign. Many historians say that a Kennedy second-term was far from certain.
Likewise, many forget he barely won the White House in the first place, prevailing in one of the closest presidential elections ever.
Historians rate Kennedy as a mediocre president — not quite great and possibly a bit overrated.
But what Kennedy did possess and why his legacy still resonates with us a half-century later was a unique ability to inspire the country.
He was a great communicator whose words and message was uplifting. He dreamed big and captivated the country and a generation.
That gift for inspiration is embodied in perhaps the most famous phrase ever attributed to a U.S. president, “Ask not what your country can do for you ...” which Kennedy delivered at his inaugural address in January of 1961.
It is a timeless declaration for public service that conjures up the spirit of “we are all in this together.” It evokes the essence of what it means to be an American.
While this is the most identifiable quote from that address, the setup line is equally compelling:
“I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
Kennedy made us believe that we could do anything we set our minds to whether it was travel to the moon or stop the spread of communism in eastern Europe. He made us believe we are truly the example for the rest of the world to follow.
Sadly, these classic lines seem strangely nostalgic and out of reach in today’s cynical, hyper-political and divisive times where we shut our government down over partisan politics. Outside of military service, faith and devotion to country seem to be in short supply.
We live in a different world today — where America is not always regarded as the bastion of liberty and democracy in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Today’s leaders by and large fall short of inspiring the kind of hope and optimism that Kennedy was able to evoke. Perhaps Ronald Reagan came closest.
Kennedy’s legacy is one founded on inspiring his fellow Americans to achieve a bigger, brighter future for the country and the world by becoming engaged. He challenged us to be better Americans and dared us to dream big.
He wasn’t perfect, but his message still resonates today and will for generations to come.