This is a guest note by Ted Sorensen, whose most recent book is Counseler: A Life at the Edge of History. Sorensen, former special counsel and adviser to President John F. Kennedy, is a widely published author on the presidency and foreign affairs.
22 November 2009 — 46 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was killed at the age of 46. Were he alive today, he would find much to gratify and disappoint him.
He would be gratified that once again the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had been fulfilled when last year the descendents of the hands that picked cotton picked the next President of the United States, that it took fewer than 50 years for another non-WASP to reach the White House.
But he would be disappointed that the extraordinary progress this country has made in race relations since his path-breaking speech and comprehensive civil rights legislation of June 1963 – resulting in record numbers of African-American mayors, south and north, as well as members of congress and successful professional and business leaders – have still fallen short by failing to achieve true desegregation of schools, neighborhoods and the top ranks of business.
He would be disappointed that the new President was still listening to – even though not yet convinced by – the old Cold War mindset insisting that more American combat forces could solve what are essentially political problems (e.g. regime change) in foreign lands long unwilling to permit Western forces ever again to occupy or dominate their respective countries, a mindset that Kennedy refused to heed regarding Vietnam.
He would be gratified that U.S. leadership in the exploration of outer-space (made possible by his bold pledge to reach the moon) had prevented the military occupation of space by hostile forces and had also enabled a host of benefits in American science, communications, health and commerce in ways we now take for granted.
He would be disappointed that his unprecedented efforts to renew the constitutional separation of church and state – in a country, as he said, in which “no Catholic prelate” would tell an elected official how to decide what was in the best interest of all Americans – had still not dissuaded the current Roman Catholic hierarchy from trying to punish a good Catholic congressman like JFK’s nephew Patrick for voting his conscience on the question of free reproductive choice for American women.
He would be gratified that the current administration has recognized his repeated emphasis on “man’s survival being a race between population and resources” by restoring American participation in the U.N. World Population Fund.
He would be gratified that the little daughter whom he adored had grown into a brilliant author, mother, and keeper of his flame; but disappointed that the Democratic Party, which he led and cherished, had become virtually as dependent as its opponents upon what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” for campaign contributions, and the lobbying pressures that accompany them.
He would be disappointed, even astounded, that, despite his assassination and the crushing blows that followed – the assassinations of his brother Robert and his friend Dr. King, as well as the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan – this country is still awash in handguns easily available to terrorists, the criminally inclined, and the mentally impaired.
The President who strove to keep the federal budget below 100 billion dollars and the annual deficit below 10 billion dollars would be not merely disappointed but staggered by the debt burden in the trillions that his successors in both parties have passed along to his grandchildren and mine.
He would be disappointed that both political parties in Washington today seem to have forgotten his inaugural reminder that “civility is not a sign of weakness” but gratified that, once again, public service at both the national and local level has become “a proud and lively career” for our best and brightest students.
But he would be disappointed that his pride and joy, the Peace Corps, his noblest effort to show the poorest citizens of the poorest countries the true face of the United States – conveying a spirit of good works and good will, not merely greed and guns – has this year failed to achieve in Congress the financing necessary to assure sufficient volunteers to many of the world’s neediest and most deserving nations.
— Ted Sorensen