The late John F. Kennedy was not a popular president in many parts of the South, but he was an inspiration to the younger generation and others of his time. His reputation has been tarnished some over the last 50-plus years, but a visit to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum here last week brought back some great and sad memories.
I was a 27-year-old school teacher when JFK rose to national prominence during the 1960 presidential campaign, and I got caught up in his vision for this country. He talked about uplifting America and helping it realize its full potential.
Teachers weren’t supposed to get involved in politics, but I bought into what Kennedy was selling. It was perhaps my first serious venture into politics, and I recalled those days as we made our way through the JFK Library.
Kennedy had no use for communism, and that was also appealing to many of us with idealistic views about a better world order than the one that existed in the 1960s.
Life in the Soviet Union was depressing because the people there lived a cold, hard existence, Kennedy said after an early visit to Russia. The Communist regime, he said, should be concentrating on making life better for the people of the Soviet Union rather than working for world domination.
We had a chance to once again view some of the four presidential debates between Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960. They were described as the most historic debates since the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. JFK said after he won the presidency the first televised debates made the difference.
The presidential election was the closest in American history. Kennedy picked up 49.7 percent of the popular vote to 49.5 percent for Nixon. JFK won the electoral vote 303 to 219. Louisiana’s 10 electoral votes went to Kennedy, as did most of the electoral votes in the South.
JFK got 80 percent of the black vote and was the favorite of young people, Jewish voters and blue collar workers. At 43, he was the youngest person to be elected president and the first Catholic.
Kennedy’s famous words during his Inaugural address personified the goals he had for his country. And there was advice for the world as well.
“And so, my fellow Americans; ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” Kennedy said.
He added, “My fellow citizens of the world; ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
The world was in major turmoil when Kennedy became president. His foreign policy suffered a major blow for starters because of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Communist Cuba by 1,400 Cuban exiles.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower had approved the invasion plans in March of 1960, but JFK suffered the consequences of the failure.
The Berlin Wall that divided West Berlin and East Germany was constructed beginning on Aug. 13, 1961, the first year of Kennedy’s presidency. It has been described as the symbolic boundary between democracy and communism during the Cold War.
The late President Ronald Reagan called for the wall to come down, and it did on Nov. 9, 1989. Its destruction was called the beginning of the end of communism in Europe. A section of the wall was donated to the JFK Library.
The Soviet Union’s plans to construct nuclear missile sites in Cuba marked the most serious threat to world peace during October of 1962. The tense 13 days the crisis lasted came to an end when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev backed down. The feared nuclear war was averted.
Kennedy promised the country would land a man on the moon in a decade, and it happened. Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon on July 20, 1969.
At the urging of his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, JFK decided to enforce the federal courts’ decision to end segregation in the South. And for that the two men incurred the wrath of many Southerners, some of whom still harbor ill feelings today.
The darkest and longest days came after Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. Those of us who believed JFK was right for America at the time believed our hopes died with him.
Watching the funeral ceremonies over an entire weekend was one of the most difficult experiences of a lifetime. Seeing some of that footage last week brought back those painful memories once again.
Unfortunately, there were those who were happy to see the Kennedy years come to an end. And we have learned since then that he wasn’t the perfect president and human being we thought he was.
None of that, however, takes away from the accomplishments of his short presidency. And the hope he gave us has never lost its glow. We long for it still in a world facing problems just as troubling as those of the 1960s.
The JFK Presidential Library and Museum is one of many highlights for visitors to historic Boston. It retells a great story from our past.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].