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Memorial Day: Marking JFK's 100th birthday in a changed nation

May 26, 2017

The other night I had dinner with former State Senator John Kelly, who has a law degree and a doctorate and served his country in the JAG, or Judge Advocate General Corps. He told me once about the moment he decided to go into public service.

It was the day before his eleventh birthday at the Michigan State Fair in Detroit on Labor Day in 1960, and he was sitting on his father’s shoulders. He reached out for the hand of the big man with the shock of reddish-brown hair. “My initials are JFK!” he said.

“Well, then, you’ll go into politics too,” John F. Kennedy told him.

Whether or not you are old enough to actually remember President Kennedy, you’ve always seen him as young, tanned and handsome. So it may come as a bit of shock to realize that this Memorial Day would have been John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s one hundredth birthday.

Most Americans today have no real memory of him. In the many years since his assassination, we’ve learned that his health was far worse than anyone knew.

It seems highly unlikely that he could have lived to see this day even if he had avoided Dallas on November 22, 1963 -- a day I think changed this country far more than September 11. Kennedy has now been dead longer than he was alive.

We’ve learned since that his personal behavior was sometimes shameful, and that some of his policies were largely wrongheaded. It took him too long to fully embrace the civil rights movement. But that misses the point. 

The reason JFK remains near the top of every public survey of presidential greatness is that he made us think that our country was great and getting greater, and that we had an obligation to make sure that continued.

Everyone remembers “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Less remembered is something else in that magnificent short inaugural address:

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves … because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Compare that to this, from the most recent inaugural address: “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries … stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”

Americans today are in fact far better off, in terms of living standards, than they were in JFK’s time. Yet we don’t feel we are. It never would have occurred to Kennedy to pledge to “make America great again.” Nobody doubted that we were.

Nobody today can imagine a president telling us “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

But Kennedy did. And he also said, “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”

He was a veteran and a war hero himself. So it’s fully appropriate to think of him on Memorial Day, and of a world in which our leaders could challenge us to be better than we are.