It has been fifty years -- today, November 22, 1963 -- that the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was shot and killed as he road down the streets of Dallas in an open vehicle. Crowds had come out to see the charismatic President who had signaled a new era in American life. We were, he had declared, entering a New Frontier, that would include landing on the Moon by the end of the decade.
Unlike some, I can't remember where I was the day the President died. I was just five years old. I likely was doing things five year old kids do -- I probably was out in the yard playing with my friends. I don't remember my parents talking about it, though since my parents were politically active (a very different Republican Party), I'm sure they did talk about it.
Fifty years is a long time. The world was very different back then. It wasn't really "Leave it to Beaver" innocent, but many lived as if it was. In 1963 there was fear of the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. We weren't fully engaged in Vietnam, but we were putting our toes in to a war that divided a nation. We were in the early stages of the Civil Roots Movement. Just a few months earlier, Martin Luther King, moved the nation with his Dream speech. It was a time of hope and expectation. The President wouldn't live to see his efforts fulfilled. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, did manage to accomplish some great things, including the signing of transformative Civil Rights legislation and the establishment of Medicare. He would also suffer greatly the effects of getting involved in an unwinnable war in South East Asia.
America's innocence was shattered that day. In the years that followed, inner cities burst into flames, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were struck down by assassin's bullets just months apart, bringing to an end the lives and careers of persons with personalities and ideas that instilled hope for the future.
At moments like this, we look back and wonder what might have been. We live at a time when hope is in short supply. The innocence is long gone. The Berlin Wall has long since collapsed. But we are still at war in places that don't allow victory. Those pieces of Civil Rights legislation are under attack.
Perhaps on an anniversary day like today, on a day when we remember when the light of idealism went out in America, that we might revisit some of that idealism in our day. Some will want to point out the many imperfections in this late President, and he was an imperfect vessel, and yet even with this imperfection there is a word of hope for a nation.
Of course, when you turn back fifty years to read the speech that the President didn't get to give, it is a message of peace through military and economic strength. The speech closes with these words, that deserve contemplation. It is good for us to look back and wonder about from whence we came and where we are going.
We in this country, in this generation, are --- by destiny rather than choice --- the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of "peace on earth, good will toward men." That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago, "except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."
President Kennedy speaks here of a righteous agenda. In reality it is difficult for nations to keep to righteousness in their efforts. We may enter a conflict believing that our actions are just, but soon we get mired in the fog of war and forget our ideals. Still, what does it mean to pursue a righteous agenda, and what does the vision of a slain President have to say to us fifty years later.