The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

Why JFK was a symbol of change for a generation - Michael's essay

On the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's birth, Michael remembers the man who, despite his many faults, endures in our collective imagination.
A portrait taken on July 15, 1957 shows US Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy giving a speech. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

October 22nd, 1962, a Monday, was the seventh day of what has become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I was living in Mrs. Graham's boarding house on Elizabeth Street in Brampton, Ontario. I was working for the local Thomson weekly newspaper for about $40 a week; my first job as a reporter.

It  had been a nice autumn day, not the kind of day when a young man's thoughts turn to the end of the world and nuclear annihilation.

A spy photo of a medium range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base, is shown October 1962. (Getty Images)

The missile crisis began when the Americans became mightily displeased to discover Russian missiles in Cuba, aimed at Miami and points north.

On the night of October 22, the US president John Fitzgerald Kennedy went on network radio and television to announce that any missile launched from Cuba, for any reason, would trigger a full retaliatory response against the Soviet Union.

Or as the crazed bomber pilot Major Kong put it in Dr. Strangelove, it meant "nucular war toe to toe with the Russkies."

What everybody had often worried about and talked about, suddenly loomed as reality.

It is difficult to convey to anyone not then alive how alarming, how frightening Kennedy's speech was that night.

In the same vein, it is almost impossible to explain to post-Boomers the tenacious hold that Kennedy and the Kennedy myth had and continues to have on our imagination.

Politically he was a cold warrior. He deepened American involvement is a vicious, unpopular war that resulted in millions of deaths.

He gave the okay for the deadly fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He built up the American stockpile of nuclear weapons and wasn't afraid to rattle a few American sabres.

On the domestic side, he had to be dragged into the volatile challenges of the civil rights movement; he was maddeningly slow to see the justice in Martin Luther King's crusade.

Roy Wilkins, Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders speak to the media after meeting with President Kennedy August 28, 1963 at the White House. (Getty Images)

He was born a hundred years ago this week into a life of wealth and privilege and entitlement. Sexually, he had the morals of a goat; his priapic adventurism was notorious.

He could be arrogant, unfeeling, condescending.

He played a ruthless game of politics and knew how to hate.

Yet for all his many and varied faults and weaknesses, he became a living symbol of change for an entire generation.

The Fifties had been a somnolent time of conformity. Political leadership in the US and Canada was old and gray. Bland had become institutionalized.

President John F. Kennedy, second right, and First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy attend the first America's Cup race September 9, 1962 in Newport, RI. (Getty Images/Handout)

The arrival of the Kennedy Camelot was like a splash of colour on a dull canvas. The new president was young, ironic, sophisticated. 

His speeches ignited the imaginations of the young. Listening to Kennedy, it seemed that political life could be as dignified and uplifting as it was corrosive and corrupt.

The speeches, thanks to the brilliant Ted Sorenson, were inspiring. Years later when I interviewed Sorensen, he gave JFK most of the credit for the soaring oratory. 

He was funny and spoke to young people in a modern language they could understand.

If Kennedy was about anything, if he meant anything, it was about change and potential. Everything seemed possible, even going to the moon.

Dallas, of course, changed everything. For one thing, it forever sealed in our memories the image of a shining moment in political history.

Dallas also energized a rising generation to get involved in the public life of their country. A feeling that continues to resonate.

The funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy goes into Arlington Cemetery in Washington. On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was killed by an assassin's bullets as his motorcade wound through Dallas, Texas. Kennedy was the youngest man elected President; he was the youngest to die. (National Archives/Handout)

But history won't judge Kennedy as a great president, even though I think he would have ended the Vietnam War by 1967.

In her book on the assassination of another young leader, Michael Collins of Ireland, S. M. Sigerson writes:

'That one man's life should change history is a great thing. That one man's death could change the future is astounding." 

The meaning of JFK is with us still, 54 years after his death, 100 years after his birth.

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay. 

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