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Remembering how a young president pushed us to do good in the world


Tomorrow, the media will engage in a vast commemoration of the assassination of President Kennedy. In fact, there have already been a flood of TV specials, magazine covers, and newspaper series. Everyone is once again debating everything from the single bullet theory to the merits of his presidency. And my guess is that pretty much everyone under the age of 40, maybe even 50, wonders what all the fuss was about.

Well, here’s something that may help you put it in perspective. When the assassination happened I was in seventh grade Spanish class. The principal came on the public address system. Overcome with emotion, he said only, “The President is dead.” Someone said, “Our President?” The teacher said no, she thought it might be Chile. They were having a lot of unrest there, she said. Of course, they would probably not have interrupted our class in Michigan if all of Chile had sunk into the Pacific Ocean.

But the fact that our young and vigorous and unbelievably charismatic president was dead was inconceivable to her, and pretty much everyone else. That afternoon I remember cars pulled over, drivers listening to the radio and crying. I’ve never seen that again.

Far more people died on September 11. But the idea that fanatic Muslim terrorists would want to do something like that was no surprise. Nobody expected the Kennedy assassination. Two days later, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and watching the non-stop coverage, my brothers and I watched TV’s first live televised murder.

You may think it a cliché, but that really was the end of American innocence in a real way. We felt it a bit personally in Michigan. Ann Arbor, after all, is where he proclaimed the Peace Corps, during his legendary 1960 campaign.

And as far as the Secret Service was concerned, it was our state that elected him. The director determined he had won the presidency and sent agents to protect him when he carried Michigan the morning after that famous nail-biting election night.

Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley spent an hour alone with President Kennedy once, in Detroit in 1962. Kelley told me “He had it all. I’ve met Popes, I’ve met just about all the presidents since, and I never met anyone with his charm, his grace, his common touch. . . He could talk to you or somebody in the gas station and never act like he thought he was the least bit superior.”

Kelley added, “It may be impossible today for anyone young to understand how much we looked up to him – especially a guy from a middle-class, Irish Catholic family like me. When I was growing up, it was taken as a given that no Catholic could be elected President. He changed all that. He made us feel we could do anything,” Kelley said. 

Incredible as it may seem, JFK has now been dead longer than he was alive. Even more incredibly to me, I am now 15 years older than he was when he died. I have a film clip somewhere of him saying, “Everyone can make a difference, and everyone should try.” He believed that, and I do too. I wish we all did.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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