by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
November 21, 2003
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
May 29, 1917 - November 22, 1963
35th President of the United States
On Native Ground
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - It's hard to keep from doing it.
It's hard to keep from wondering what course our country would have taken had John F. Kennedy heeded the advice of those who told him to stay away from Dallas because there were just a few too many right-wing kooks there.
Had President Kennedy not bothered to ride in that motorcade through the streets of Dallas on that November day forty years ago, would Lyndon Johnson be remembered as a great legislator who took a step down to be vice president?
Would Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign have been an intellectual cul-de-sac for the Republican Party instead of the start of the long march to power of the Right?
Would Watts and Newark not be cities whose names are synonymous with urban riots and decay?
Would the Cold War have lasted another three decades?
Would we have ever heard of places such as the Gulf of Tonkin, Da Nang, the Ia Drang Valley, Hue, Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill or My Lai?
Would we had ever heard of Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray?
Would Richard Nixon have remained a corporate lawyer, nursing his grudges and thinking about what could've been save for a couple of hundred thousand votes in 1960?
Would Henry Kissinger have remained an obscure academic, instead of a war criminal?
Would Kent State have been merely a state college in Ohio instead of a killing field?
Would Watergate be merely the name of an apartment complex in Washington?
Would Gerald Ford have completed a long and moderately distinguished career in Congress and been instantly forgotten as soon as he left office?
Would Jimmy Carter have stayed on his peanut farm in Georgia?
Would Ronald Reagan have been just another dimly remembered B-movie actor whose movies popped up on the Late Show?
Would the best known politician in the Bush family have been Prescott, the senior senator from Connecticut?
Would Bill Clinton have been just a lawyer in Little Rock?
All those what ifs. That's why President Kennedy's assassination still resonates in our consciousness. His death was like turning over a great big rock and watching all sorts of evil things crawl out from underneath.
This is not to say that everything would have turned out right had Kennedy lived, served out his first term and won his second term in 1964. We have no way of ever knowing.
All I know was that he was the last good president.
In the Massachusetts I grew up in, John F. Kennedy was a revered figure. Years after his death, especially in the Catholic households, I would go into homes where his framed portrait still hung on the wall. Contrasted with the presidents that followed him, Kennedy - or at least the idealized image of him - remains larger than life.
That contrast is even more stark when you compare Kennedy with President George W. Bush. In the words of his chief speechwriter and advisor, Ted Sorenson, Kennedy was "so blessed with the gifts of reason, intellect and vitality that eloquence came naturally to him."
The preceding sentence definitely cannot be applied to Bush.
Kennedy was an intelligent and able politician with charisma to burn. Bush is not.
Kennedy was a bona-fide war hero. President Bush allegedly went AWOL from the National Guard.
Kennedy was one of the greatest public speakers of the 20th Century. President Bush sounds like a third-rate Ronald Reagan wanna-be.
Kennedy loved the give-and-take of the press conferences. President Bush only appears in a carefully scripted and controlled settings.
We know Kennedy wasn't perfect and his personal and political failings have been well documented in the 40 years since Dallas. But to me, what Kennedy really represents are ideals that are no longer are with us but were recurring themes in Kennedy's time - that public service is a noble thing, that leaders could inspire us to causes larger than ourselves, that our nation must be actively and constructively engaged with the world for its betterment.
A couple of weeks before his famed 1961 inaugural address, Kennedy gave a speech to the Massachusetts Legislature where he laid out the four questions that sum up how those in public service will ultimately be judged by history:
"First, were we truly men of courage - with the courage to stand up to one's enemies - and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one's own associates - the courage to resist public pressure as well as private greed?
"Secondly, were we truly men of judgment - with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past - of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others - with enough wisdom to know what we did not know, and enough candor to admit it?
"Third, were we truly men of integrity - men who never ran out on either the principles in which we believed or the people who believed in us - men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust?
"Finally, were we men of dedication - with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest?"
Even though these standards for successful public service have been completely devalued in the last four decades and even though few of our public or private leaders today can meet them, I still believe these are the standards we should judge our leaders by.
Someday, perhaps we will again see a president that can meet those standards.
Randolph T. Holhut was a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.