Editor’s note: On Monday, Richard Davis announced the formation of the United Utah Party for which he will serve as chairman.
No matter how much time passes, we still see John F. Kennedy as a relatively young man with well-combed hair, a deep tan and a determined look dedicated to shaping a better future for America. He will always look that way to us, representing a more innocent era that his death itself helped bring to a sudden end. It is timely to remember this president who still captures our attention more than 50 years after his death and who was born 100 years ago next Monday.
It is easy to forget how significant Kennedy’s election was at the time it happened. At 43, he was (and still is) the youngest person ever elected president. His youthfulness marked a new era in American life. His predecessor, 70-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower, represented the past. Kennedy was the symbol of the 1960s — a decade when America would reach new heights both metaphorically and even literally. Kennedy’s young, pretty wife and his young children reinforced the futuristic orientation of this new president.
Also, Kennedy was a symbol of societal change. For the first time, the nation would be led by a president who was not a Protestant. He represented the nation’s acceptance of the religious melting pot the United States had become. We were becoming more tolerant and accepting of religious diversity. (Later that decade, a Mormon would be a serious candidate for president and few would object on religious grounds.) America should be progressively more tolerant of religious diversity, but, sadly, the 1960s may have been our high point.
Kennedy’s own vision helped give America hope for the future. He launched a space program that, despite later tragic setbacks, boosted American’s faith in our ability to achieve whatever we set our mind to. Another innovation, the Peace Corps, sent hundreds of thousands of Americans around the world to serve local communities and spread American goodwill. He instituted the Good Neighbor program to improve U.S. relations with some of our closest neighbors, the peoples of Latin American nations. Moreover, in an act of courageous but risky brinkmanship, Kennedy sent a clear message to the Russians that America would not tolerate nuclear missiles only 90 miles from its shores.
The Kennedy years were filled with hope in the future. Americans were much less cynical, more trusting, more committed to a common cause of reinforcing American exceptionalism — the sense that America is a special, unique place. Vietnam, Watergate, energy crises and deep economic recessions were yet to come, as was Kennedy’s own assassination. Kennedy’s sudden and tragic death was one of the events that shook Americans to our core.
I remember the day Kennedy died. Hearing the news of shots fired at the presidential motorcade in Dallas, our teacher turned on the television set and we watched attentively as Walter Cronkite told America that the president had been shot. Then, with a choke in his throat, he announced the president had died. Our teacher cried.
Again, the television brought us scenes of a riderless horse trotting down Pennsylvania Avenue and a quiet procession of soldiers and world leaders following a coffin bearing the body of the young, dead president. But most compelling was the image of a slender woman veiled in black standing beside her young daughter and son, the latter saluting smartly as his father passed by.
We did not realize at that moment that Kennedy’s assassination would be the first of several in a tumultuous decade. Nor could we know that a corner had turned in the American psyche. Kennedy’s death demonstrated that American exceptionalism was not as secure as we thought. God did not keep the nation from disappointments and even tragedies. America matured that day, albeit painfully. Kennedy changed America, even in ways he could not have imagined.