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JFK: a life of victory, tragedy and endless inspiration

Unless you have been in a coma these past 10 days or so, you have to be well aware that this week is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

His life, in all its victory and tragedy, is among the most interesting American lives of the 20th century. We simply cannot look away, don’t want to, and shouldn’t.

When he was inaugurated in January of 1961, he was the youngest man ever to be elected president, and replaced Dwight Eisenhower, at the time the oldest man to ever hold the office.

Kennedy represented change, the future, but he built the foundation for his run for the presidency by being a man of his time, and his time was the Cold War. He was elected partly because he convinced the nation that he would be tougher on the Russians than his opponent, sitting vice president Richard Nixon.

He was a Catholic when many said they’d never vote for one for president — a misplaced fear that he would "take his direction" from the pope. Though I don’t know how his son voted, Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. urged his flock to vote for Nixon because of Kennedy’s religion. Many Protestant leaders throughout the nation had similar messages.

To offset those twin “negatives” of youth and religion, Kennedy campaigned as a hawk, saying Eisenhower and Nixon had allowed the Soviets to surpass our nuclear capabilities (which wasn’t true). Once elected, by one of the slimmest margins ever, Kennedy appointed very conservative people to his national security team, many of whom were Republicans.

After his historic, “Ask not ...” inaugural address, the new president went out and, well, experienced a near cataclysmic first year.

His 1961 makes Barack Obama’s 2013 look pretty average. In April, he gave the go-ahead on the Bay of Pigs Invasion, a CIA plan hatched under Eisenhower, in which Cuban refugees were trained for an invasion of their former country. Military insiders felt the invasion would lead to a quick overthrow of the young Communist Fidel Castro, who had come to power in 1959. It failed miserably. It buoyed both Castro’s standing and the confidence of the Soviets that the U.S. had lost the guts and capacity to curtail them. The Bay of Pigs also damaged the confidence the military had in their young president and, conversely, that of JFK of the old school national security team he’d assembled.

That summer, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev essentially bullied Kennedy during a summit meeting in Europe that brought only a deeper chill to the Cold War. That fall, the Soviet Union, angry at the flood of East Germans who flocked to Berlin, built the wall that would separate the city — and, figuratively, the two worlds — for more than three decades.

The act was blatant proof they had little fear of U.S. retaliation. The Soviets became the first to orbit the earth. In short, the United States, and its boyish president, were losing. In total, 1961, Kennedy's first year as president, was a disaster.

A major turning point for Kennedy — the United States, and the entire world — occurred in October, 1962. The Soviets had upped the Cold War ante. They had placed nuclear warheads on the island of Cuba. The entire United States was vulnerable to annihilation. Military leaders urged bombing Cuba, many pushing for tactical nuclear strikes. Kennedy instead showed caution, bet that mankind, even mortal enemies, would back away from mutual destruction. He instead sternly told Khrushchev to remove the missiles or face repercussions. He also ordered a Naval blockade of the island. Meanwhile, Castro was urging Khrushchev to launch an attack. The world was never closer to cataclysmic destruction.

At the 11th hour, Khrushchev blinked. He, like Kennedy, had essentially chosen not to end the world as we knew it that fall. He pulled all the nuclear weaponry out of Cuba. In return, the U.S. only had to remove missiles from Turkey, without public announcement of doing so, missiles they planned on removing anyway.

I'm sure anyone in their 60s or older remembers October of ’62. The thought of it chills me to this day. It should chill all of us. Kennedy’s shrewd handling of the crisis amid the shrill of panic ranks among the finest actions any president ever undertook.

The missile crisis reinvigorated Kennedy’s presidency. What followed was an inspirational 1963. While George Wallace called him a dictator for sending federal troops in to make sure black students could enter the University of Alabama, JFK went on TV and asked all of America to look into their hearts, and reminded them that the freedom of all men is reduced when the freedom of one is infringed upon. In June he was pushing for Civil Rights bills, and in August came the march on Washington. A full century after the Civil War, civil rights were finally on the march.

Also in 1963, Kennedy traveled to Germany and, before a massive, adoring crowd, made his famous "Ech bin ein Berliner " speech, promoting representative democracy and capitalism in the face of communism.

On June 10, JFK came full circle. During a commencement speech at American University, the man who had run for office in 1960 screaming that we didn't have enough nuclear weapons, called for peace. He announced movement toward a test ban treaty with the Soviets, and said that we'd unilaterally stop atmospheric testing if the rest of the world would join us. It sent shock waves through the military industrial complex and the still-conservative Congress – and through the entire world. His old foe Khrushchev called it the greatest speech by an American president since FDR. It wasn't easy to get through Congress, but on Oct. 10, 1963, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty went into effect.

On Nov. 22, John Kennedy and his wife flew to Dallas. The world hasn’t been the same since.

There have been greater presidents than John Kennedy, but the majority have fallen short of him, of what he achieved in less than three years, and certainly what he’s meant to our country as a figure of inspiration. While there are more perfect men who held the office, men with fewer vices and frailties, there have been few greater, more iconic Americans -- presidents or otherwise.

While he died young, Kennedy was a man who long cheated death. One of the most amazing facts about JFK is that he had last rights performed five times, the first as a young boy. It was if a higher being kept pulling him back, until that day in Dallas.

Now, 50 years after his death, we still can’t look away from JFK. He forever remains among the most vivid images of the America we love: young, confident, brash, with a keen knowledge of the past but a laser focus on the future. Largely because his was stolen, JFK will forever remain a profile of promise, of potential, of possibility, of brilliance to come.



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