There are many John F. Kennedys to consider. There’s the Camelot myth, and there’s the real man. There’s the assassinated hero, and there’s the real President.
There’s the President who managed a peaceful end to the Cuban Missile Crisis, a triumph of strength and restraint. And there’s the President who gave us the Bay of Pigs, a disaster of hubris and deceit.
There’s the moral leader who helped birth the civil rights revolution. And there’s the Cold Warrior who, along with advisers who stayed on with LBJ, helped birth Vietnam.
There’s the canny politician who showed how an outsider could go around the Washington insiders, appeal directly to the voters and win. The leader who inspired a generation, recruited bold leaders like Terry Sanford to his side and made young people like Jim Hunt believe politics could be a noble endeavor.
And there’s the image-conscious media master who led three (so far) generations of ambitious young men to think they could ride great hair, great teeth and great rhetoric to great power.
But still there’s something beyond that, something elusive. Beyond all the mythologizing, all the revelations about personal flaws and dirty linen and Joe’s money and the rest, even beyond the still-raw shock and long-lived scars of November 22, there is something that reaches out and touches us nearly 60 years later.
It’s hard to think of him this way, but Kennedy was part of the Greatest Generation. Unlike most of his cohort, he wasn’t shaped in any way by the Depression. His family was so rich he hardly noticed that.
But he was shaped by war. Because his father was Ambassador to Great Britain, he had a front-row seat to the onset of war. He was leaving Berlin the day Hitler invaded Poland. His brother was killed. He was nearly killed (what would the Swift Boaters do to him today?), and he saved his crewmen’s lives.
Because he saw the rise of evil in Europe, he believed America should confront and combat evil around the world. And he came to believe Americans should confront and combat evil at home – racism, poverty, hunger, injustice and just plain indifference.
He believed in America. He believed in Americans. And he still tells us: We can do better.