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50 years later does JFK's Tabernacle speech still resonate? (+photos)

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 25 2013 7:15 p.m. MDT

President John F. Kennedy speaks at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Sept. 26, 1963.

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SALT LAKE CITY — President John F. Kennedy considered a speech he gave in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on this day 50 years ago among the best in his short time in the White House.

Salt Lake attorney Oscar W. McConkie Jr., who worked as Kennedy's point man during the 1960 presidential campaign, helped renowned speechwriter Ted Sorensen craft the address.

"The president's little brother, Bobby, told me that the president thought this was one of the one or two best talks he'd ever given. He had a copy of it made to give to his father and mother," McConkie said.

Kennedy's overnight stop in Salt Lake City on Sept. 26, 1963, came in the middle of a five-day, 11-state trip starting in Pennsylvania and ending in California. It marked his fifth and final visit to Utah — he came twice as a presidential candidate in 1960 and twice for Democratic fundraisers as a Massachusetts senator in 1957 and 1959.

"This was a time of huge turmoil, but the president chose to come out to little Salt Lake City and speak in the Mormon Tabernacle," said McConkie, now 87.

Thousands of Utahns greeted the president at the airport with signs such as "Welcome back Jack," "Utah for J.F.K." and "The West needs Kennedy." An estimated 125,000 people lined downtown streets to catch a glimpse of him riding in an open limousine, the same car in which he would be assassinated two months later in Dallas.

Ray Boren stood on North Temple along with his Jackson Elementary School classmates waving American flags and screaming as the motorcade headed to the airport the next morning. He had his first camera with him but as a 10-year-old seeing the president, he said he was too excited to use it.

His glee turned to sadness eight weeks later when he learned Kennedy was shot to death. Just three days earlier, his sister received for her birthday a Camelot paper doll set featuring the first family.

"I thought it was very poignant," said Boren, a retired newspaper editor. "It went from a joyous thing to a sad thing."

Kennedy spent most of the cross-country tour that took him to places such as Laramie, Wyo., and Great Falls, Mont., talking about conservation.

But in Salt Lake City, he devoted his 27-minute speech to foreign policy. He extolled the perseverance of Mormon pioneers, praised Utah's high school graduation rate and explained his vision for America as a superpower.

"The Tabernacle was filled, yet he was speaking to the nation. He was speaking to the world," said Tim Chambless of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, who listened to a recording of the speech this week.

Kennedy made a case that the United States could not go back to being isolationist, that it must "support the independence of nations so that one bloc cannot gain sufficient power to finally overcome us."

Chambless described it as forcefully delivered, substantive speech that set the tone for American foreign policy for the decades that followed. Kennedy, he said, convincingly reassured Americans and countries that depended on the United States that it was going to be an active player in the world because it needed to be.

Kennedy also respectfully and politely opposed his critics who called for a return to "Fortress America," Chambless said.

The 35th president took office in the midst of the Cold War and nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. By 1963, thousands of U.S. troops were on the ground in Vietnam. He arrived in Utah a year removed from the Cuban missile crisis and construction of the Berlin Wall.

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