We lost great men in the 1960s

Now that the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has passed, and we have taken some time to reflect, it seems fair to wonder what it is we lost on that terrible day in Dallas.

Was JFK a great president? His time in office was relatively short, so it’s somewhat difficult to say. He did have two signature moments:

1. His important and nation-changing speech on civil rights, a speech that told a large segment of the country that “all men are created equal” meant just that. It did not mean “white men,” it meant what it said: All men. Yes, it was, he said in essence, a truth we hold to be self-evident.

2. His handling of the Cuban missile crisis. To some extent, now, that is merely a historical footnote because nothing really happened and only one man, a U2 pilot, died. In comparison to our current crises – Iraq and Afghanistan – it was a blip. But for those of us old enough to have lived through it, those 13 days in October were a frightening time, a desperate time. JFK held the nation together, he and his brother, Robert Kennedy, kept the war hawks of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from bombing or invading Cuba. They probably kept us from a serious, perhaps devastating, shooting war with the Soviet Union. In the end, Kruschev backed down thanks to the courage shown by President Kennedy, his brother and their staff.

Those were great moments and we should be thankful for them and for the man who gave them to us.

But do they equal greatness on the scale of, say, Washington and Lincoln? For that matter, was Washington a great president? Certainly he was a great Revolutionary War general but as president?

Lincoln, though, most certainly was. He, like JFK, eventually took the phrase “all men are created equal” seriously, although initially he was not exactly a civil rights maven. But he guided us through the most bloody war in our history and had he lived, probably would have healed the wounds caused by that war in a way that would have welcomed the Southern states back into the fold, not ostracized them as the administration of the weak-willed Andrew Johnson did.

Of course that’s speculation, which is all we can do vis a vis Lincoln and JFK. Would President Kennedy even have won a second term? Against Barry Goldwater, probably, but had he lived, the dynamic of the Republican Party might have changed. Kennedy might have faced Nelson Rockefeller, a moderate Republican who got into the race for the GOP nomination late. Against Rockefeller, who can predict what might have happened?

And what would JFK have done with a second term? Certainly pushed through the Civil Rights Act, as Lyndon Johnson famously did, but other than that?

We need to remember, though, that JFK’s death wasn’t the only horrific murder of that period and it’s possible that two other deaths – of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King – had a greater effect upon the future of the nation.

Bobby Kennedy was a true believer, a man who didn’t need to be convinced that all men were created equal. He knew it.

And King? He was a great man, a great leader, one who would put to shame the so-called leaders of today’s black community.

Imagine, if you will, the administration of a Robert F. Kennedy with Martin Luther King as either official or unofficial advisor. Impossible to know for sure, but certainly worth the speculation.

We lost great men in the 1960s, men who gave us more than just things that were real. We lost men who inspired us.

And when was the last time we were truly inspired to something other than self?