Nov. 22, 1963. Three shots. Historical shock. The near destabilization of the American system. A hurried reordering of executive leadership and governing priorities. Every question asked, and unanswered. Importantly. Exactly fifty years ago today, Pres. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr., was shot and killed, in Dallas, Texas. Though official filings cite Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin, no judicial process has ever found him guilty. Instead, we have the controversial and selective report from the Warren Commission, and the shooting remains a more or less unsolved mystery.
Ultimately, what matters most is what we learn and what we put into effect.
The current status of the investigation is that the United States Congress found, upon examination of new evidence, in the 1970s, that an unexamined conspiracy had led to the assassination. No further official investigation has been conducted. No co-conspirators were ever charged. The uncomfortable resonance of the tragedy, specifically the failure to fully redress the injustice of such a high crime, is itself now built into our political system and our popular culture.
John F. Kennedy carried in his manner of public service a message of hope, one that posited ideals not as something contrary to what we live, but as growing out of and steering our experience. And yet the legacy of his assassination has introduced into each generation since a skepticism about the viability of hopeful politics. So, on this day, we need to come to grips with that uncomfortable dilemma at the heart if our civics: do we commit to the patience, resolve and ennobling frustration of principled engagement, or do we resign ourselves to the idea that some obstacles cannot be overcome.
We have, above all, to think of the legacy of the man our nation still grieves, so emotionally, so solemnly and so sincerely, five decades into the future. John F. Kennedy was uniquely talented at expressing aspirational and visionary politics. He had the courage to look past the false prophecy of pessimism and inaction, to envision a better future and then work patiently and humanely to build it, and so he could speak eloquently about the good that was possible but not yet obviously so.
Gallup reports that Kennedy’s average approval rating as president was 70%. By today’s standards, where everything in Washington seems to be about party and rivalry, that is extraordinarily high. But we must remember JFK won by the narrowest of margins in 1960, and the ideological divide at the time was so deep and so wide that people were blacklisted by Joe McCarthy, and Kennedy was accused of “treason” for not being more militant in his Cold War diplomacy.
His popularity came not from party favor or ideological preference; it came from his own commitment to helping the nation to see and then bring into being a future that might actually align with the personal ideals people held most dear. And he involved the people in the process. Setting expectations high, he made sure to remind the American people that “The new frontier I speak of is not a set of promises; it is a set of challenges.” He breathed life into the collective political spirit of our democracy and made it seem as if being a citizen, being a person of moral resolve, informed engagement and service, were to contribute mightily to the moral improvement and liberation of humanity, generally.
That feeling, and the impulse to live it, is common to virtually all American ideological perspectives, and so, in many ways, the manner in which Kennedy conducted his oratory and his public message was able to integrate into a broad political center many varied, overlapping and conflicting constituencies. He was convinced that there was a way to do civics with the creative and communicative spirit of a poet, focusing on what matters and what humanizes. He went as far as to say that “If more politicians knew poetry and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place.”
But there was more to the poetry of JFK’s political approach than just spirit or style. He understood how the artistic eye sees through short-term objectives, historical fashions and material interest, through to something more transcendent. He wrote that “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our greatness. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.”
Art and poetry, the use of language to humanize and to improve on the commonplace order of happenstance, can protect against tyranny, empower the individual mind, and motivate citizens to be actively engaged in civics. Poetry is nourishment for democracy, and JFK was a president committed to infusing the shared space of our democracy with as much poetry as could fit.
This meant he could tap into most Americans’ sense that democratic process is more than a political organizational model, that there is something transformative and consequential about every action one takes as a citizen functioning in a free society. For some, that might seem like wishful thinking, but if we are honest with ourselves, such is always the tenor of our aspiration, and really, there is no other way for democracy to achieve its best potential.
So, Kennedy’s governing vision was less ideological and more rooted in the basic rational principle that one must always keep aware that the optimal outcome is always, by definition, within the realm of the possible. And starting from there, one quickly finds agreement with Kennedy’s guiding philosophical disposition: “The problems of the world cannot be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities.”
50 years after the day of his death, we should honor his memory, and the legacy of what so many millions, seeing beyond the hard edges of partisan posturing, felt was threatened when he died, by committing to be citizens of creative collaborative engagement, working to ensure that every act of any free person might have the transformative and humanizing quality appropriate to our best dreams. That, after all, is what the American experiment is meant to make room for.
The work of living as our better selves, and doing so together, with patience and impatience feeding each other optimally, may be as long and hard-won as it is consequential. It may require far more time than we have in one life on this Earth. But as JFK urged, and in the way that he showed us, “let us begin.”