John F. Kennedy: An untimely loss, an indelible legacy

Sen. John F. Kennedy speaks at Roosevelt Raceway. Sen. John F. Kennedy speaks at Roosevelt Raceway. (Oct. 12, 1960) Photo Credit: Newsday File

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Hofstra history professor Michael D'Innocenzo said that in the 43 years he's given freshmen a survey asking them to list the 10 most important Americans, President John F. Kennedy has always appeared near the top.

Today, 50 years after his assassination, Kennedy remains one of the most recognizable figures in recent U.S. history, even for generations born too late to remember exactly where they were when they learned of his death.

"I feel that he's similar to an icon of the United States, just like the bald eagle and the flag," said Hofstra junior Max Bid, 20, a member of the university's senate. "People remember him for his speeches and his assassination. He's a symbol of inspiration and patriotism even if people don't know much about his policies."

Untimely loss, the lingering Camelot glow of celebrity and glamour can mask the darker undercurrents of Kennedy's era: the fear of nuclear war, anxiety over Communist bloc competition, poverty and segregation. But his soaring oratory extolling a higher purpose of public service and civic duty excited his nation and left perhaps his most lasting impact.

"I think he was one of the last leaders to articulate a vision of society that was genuinely inspiring to young people and made us feel we ourselves needed to make a worthwhile contribution," said Hofstra University professor Carolyn Eisenberg, whose specialty is 20th century U.S. history.

"The thing that influenced my generation the most was really his idealism, and the idealism of his rhetoric," she said. "The language was fresh, not just a recycling of cliches. In those speeches, he really enunciated an idea of citizenship that we all belong to this country and have responsibilities to each other and to the world."

And that message reverberates for some to this day.

Scott D. Reich, 30, a lawyer who lives in East Hills, recently published a book called "The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation."

This month he appeared on a Hofstra panel about Kennedy's relevance to today's youth, with Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist, and Howard Dean III, former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential candidate.

Reich described how as a 15-year-old interested in politics he was instantly smitten when he saw, in a documentary, Kennedy deliver his famous inauguration speech exhortation: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

He said: "He gives us this lasting image of what we want our country to look like. . . . We still have this feeling we want to be inspired, we want to be challenged."

As the fresh outpouring of books, novels, documentaries, essays, television specials, forums and exhibits makes clear, Kennedy and his assassination remain unfinished business for many Americans. His murder in Dealey Plaza in Dallas has fed a ceaseless stream of conspiracy theories and controversy while the man himself and his legacy -- and the unanswerable questions about how his policies would have evolved had he lived -- continue to intrigue and inspire commentators.

Icon or no, historians view him with a more nuanced perspective, rating his presidency good, not great. Some say his legislative record over his first three years was thin, his support for civil rights initially tepid and his Cold War policies led to near-disaster in Cuba. It took his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, to win passage of landmark legislation, including civil and voting rights acts, and the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid -- ideas that Kennedy had supported.

"If anything, the assassination boosted the prospects of his policies," said Todd Gitlin, a sociology and journalism professor at Columbia University, who was president of the national group Students for a Democratic Society in 1963-64.

"It crushed the right and allowed Johnson to float on the collective grief and continuity to get bills passed that might not have passed otherwise, in particular on civil rights," Gitlin said. "That is certainly a view that many have taken seriously."

Kennedy's assassination is often noted as the watershed moment when the nation's optimism and innocence shifted and the country began its slide into the tumultuous years of assassinations, war, protests, riots, scandal and cynicism.

But Kennedy's legacy outlasted his administration in the lives committed to public service inspired by his orations, Eisenberg said. For Reich, the issue is how to reignite that sense of civic unity and public purpose at a time when he sees "this selfish undertone to political rhetoric."

Today's political and economic realities color the way students view not only the role of government but also their own path to engagement, said Meena Bose, the Hofstra professor who led the panel on Kennedy.

"What struck me was how much the students were interested in the relevance today, how do we make a difference," she said. "With Kennedy, there was a sense that you could make change."

However, the sense of personal risk seems greater today, she said.

"The '60s were expansionary, with endless possibilities," she said. "Now it seems like there are unyielding constraints. Now it's saving the American dream, can we keep it, and that's a very different battle. . . . The students want to respond to the call for service, but they are not sure how they can do it."

For Reich, who urges young people to volunteer and get involved in public life in whatever way they can, the answer is clear, and it can be heard in the voice of Kennedy's orations. "Embrace the message," Reich said.

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