Fifty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, America still mourns his loss. It’s no mystery why. He remains a powerful symbol of a time of soaring idealism in America, when our people believed our country could do anything – even go to the moon.
John Kennedy even inspires Americans who know him only from history books or from the stories their parents and grandparents tell of that all-too-brief shining moment that was his Presidency. His immortal words, especially those of his Inaugural Address, still call us to action, to think beyond our own self-interests, and to do what is best for our country and the people of the world.
Like millions of Americans, I vividly recall the exact moment on that cold November day in 1963 when I heard the tragic news from Dallas that the President had been shot.
I was a junior at Farmington High School. By the time we were told, it was just after lunch and my classmates and I walked into English class. Mr. Simon Matthews, our English teacher and also one of our football coaches, broke the unspeakable news. He announced austerely, “The President has been shot.” We thought Mr. Matthews was joking and teased him to quit kidding us. He said again, “The president has just been assassinated,” and we were sent home from school early.
As I arrived home, I was stunned to walk in to my living room and find it filled by my entire family. I had never seen my grandfather or father or my uncles leave work early. It was a somber time for my family as we grappled with the news.
It was just so hard to believe our president could be taken from us. But he was.
Three days later, as an eager 16-year -old who had just gotten my license a few months before, I volunteered to drive Papa’s ’58 Cadillac to Washington so our family could pay our respects to the president.
About seven or eight of us piled into the car to make the trip to our nation’s capital.
I will never forget, as the caisson bearing the president’s casket was led down Pennsylvania Avenue on its way to Arlington Cemetery, my cousins and I climbed into the trees for a better view of the procession – of his stricken family and friends, of the somber Washington dignitaries and world leaders, of Black Jack, the riderless horse, a heartbreaking symbol of the loss of a great leader.
As I watched the procession move slowly to the muffled cadence of military drums, I thought of the time I had been fortunate enough to meet members of the Kennedy family. I was working on my go-cart downstairs in the garage when they visited my family in Farmington as then-Senator Kennedy was preparing for the West Virginia presidential primary.
My hands were dirty and greasy, and mother insisted that I wipe them clean and come upstairs to meet a few people. As I climbed the steps, I smelled my grandmother, Mama Kay’s, spaghetti and overheard exciting discussions about the political race ramping up in West Virginia. That was the day I shook hands with the Kennedys.
John Kennedy and his family spent so much time campaigning in West Virginia that he once quipped that “West Virginia” was the third word his daughter Caroline learned to pronounce. He once boasted that he was the only presidential candidate in history, other than West Virginian John Davis in 1924, “who knows where Slab Fork is and has been there.”
As I reflect on those times now, I prefer to think about the beginning of the Kennedy presidency rather than its tragic ending. I prefer to remember his inaugural address. It was just 1,355 words and 14 minutes long, but it set in motion a generation of Americans with a passion for public service.
Some were inspired to defend liberty as soldiers. Some would march for civil rights in the South. Some would join the Peace Corps and become ambassadors of peace in villages throughout the world. And some would answer the call to service by seeking public office.
John Kennedy was a powerful and positive force in my life and the life of our nation. To me, he embodied a time when politics could be harnessed to do good things for the country.
In fact, not only did his inaugural address famously challenge us to ask ourselves what we can do for our country, it also provided timeless advice on how to overcome the bitterness of partisan politics. An election, he said, is “not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom,” not an end but a beginning “signifying renewal.”
That is still good advice.
And so, 50 years after John Kennedy’s death, we should follow his admonition and “go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help … knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
— U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin is a
Democrat representing West Virginia