This has been a year of anniversaries. On Tuesday, the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address came up on the calendar. It is a memorable speech, and the original occasion, Nov. 19, 1863, was as solemn as they come.
Earlier this year, on Aug. 28, Americans celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It has become woven into our culture, partly because of the speaker and his oratory and partly because of the timelessness of its message.
Today, of course, we mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who was a contemporary of Dr. King and who died less than three months after the civil rights leader’s moment on the Lincoln Memorial.
For many Americans, today doesn’t just mark the anniversary of JFK’s death, it marks 50 years since the end of an administration that came to be known as Camelot, a turning point in our modern history. Today also marks 50 years of analysis of the Kennedy years and what-ifs and 50 years of conspiracy theories involving the CIA, Fidel Castro, Texas oilmen, the Mafia, the Russians and a second shooter. No sooner is one theory debunked than another one is manufactured. That isn’t surprising given that even today, a majority of Americans believe the plot went beyond Lee Harvey Oswald.
Millions of Americans remember that awful day as if it were yesterday. For many millions more of us, Nov. 22, 1963 is ancient history, in a category with Dec. 7, 1941 and June 6, 1944. And were it not for Abraham Zapruder’s home movie, President Kennedy, like President Lincoln and Dr. King, might well be remembered only in black and white.
What might we take with us on this day? The choices aren’t as numerous as the television specials and analyses of the Kennedy years, his mystique, his mistakes, his foreign policy, his conservatism, his infidelities, his children, his amazing wife, his health, and on and on. Some 40,000 publications, many new this fall to coincide with the anniversary, have been written about President Kennedy.
Though his presidential record is uneven, it’s hard to underestimate the importance of preventing the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating into a nuclear war in October 1962.
We remember President Kennedy’s optimism and the knack for inspiring Americans. Despite his flaws, he found a way to bring out the best in his countrymen.
It seems almost quaint today in the bitter political partisanship that thwarts progress on so many important issues, but Americans across the political spectrum would do well to heed President Kennedy’s call to action in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”