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Fifty years later, JFK still makes America ask 'what if?'

Nov 22, 2013 - By The Philadelphia Inquirer

America was not innocent before the murder of John F. Kennedy. Three presidential assassinations had preceded his, along with several unsuccessful attempts. Most men Kennedy's age in 1963 had fought and survived a world war that killed millions.

But Kennedy so personified the youthful vigor that had become the zeitgeist of post-World War II America that his death seemed to break the nation's spirit.

Confused children watched their teachers break down and cry in school hallways as word spread that the president had been shot. At home, their parents stayed tuned to the nightly news, desperately trying to understand who had done what and why. The answers became even harder to find after the assassin himself was assassinated.

A Billy Joel lyric says that "only the good die young," and so it seemed with Kennedy. His faults and missteps were forgiven as his brief presidency was compared to Camelot, that mythic court of King Arthur, who ruled a realm where the ladies were beautiful and virtuous, knights handsome and brave, and the populace well-fed and obedient.

It wasn't true, of course.

Kennedy's administration was destined to deal with some of the toughest issues of the 20th century, foreign and domestic. The Cold War reached a fever pitch, with the Russians testing the president's resolve by sending missiles to Cuba. Meanwhile, African Americans' peaceful demands for equality were met with armed resistance by racists.

Kennedy faced the challenges, but not always successfully. He directed the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion that failed to topple Cuba's Fidel Castro. But he also set the stage for the signing of landmark civil rights legislation by his successor. And he launched the mission to the moon, saying, "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people."

Such inspirational words are worth remembering as this country tries to regain the comity that seemed much easier to achieve before JFK was shot, the Vietnam War escalated, race riots raged, and Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also were assassinated.

Fifty years later, we wonder what would be different had Kennedy avoided an early death. Would Congress be more respectful of the presidency and less mired in partisanship? In discussing the U.S.-Soviet relationship, Kennedy said, "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."

Those are words Democrats and Republicans should heed.

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