We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans— born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage— and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. . . . And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you— ask what you can do for your country.
—John F. Kennedy
Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
Born on May 29, 1917, John F. Kennedy would have been 95 years old today.
Fifty years after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, the public remains fascinated with the man, his family, and his times. In 2011, two best- selling books— one based on a collection of audiotapes made by his widow, Jacqueline, in 1964, the other a mostly laudatory evaluation by political commentator Chris Matthews— attested to the ongoing near-obsession with the assassinated president. A 2012 book by a woman claiming an affair with JFK began when she was a nineteen-year-old White House intern underscored the dark side of the Kennedy legend. His life and loves, his controversial death, and the legacy of his brief presidency and extended family continue to exert a hold on the American imagination as nothing about any other politician in American memory has.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, the modern myth-making machine was set in motion. It transformed a president who had committed serious mistakes while also conjuring brilliant successes into a sun-dappled, all-American legend— a modern young King Arthur from Camelot, the popular musical of the day, which became the enduring image of his abbreviated life and presidency.
Elected at forty-two —the first and still only Roman Catholic American president and still the youngest elected president— and dead at forty- six, John F. Kennedy had, in the lyrics of Camelot, a “brief, shining moment” that remains one of the most extraordinary passages in American history, shaping the course of modern presidential politics and history.
His administration would be marked by the civil rights struggles and the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union that focused on Cuba–first with the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and then with the 13-day long missile crisis in October 1962. He promised to land a man on the moon, setting America’s space program in motion, and launched the idealistic Peace Corps, even as the nation’s involvement in Vietnam was deepening.
This is his obituary from the New York Times.
JFK’s life is documented at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
This material is adapted from the forthcoming book Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents(Scheduled for publication by Hyperion Books, September 18, 2012)