It was a newer world when he told us the torch was being passed to the next generation of Americans.
So was it, too, when he urged us to ask not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country.
Many of us took it personally.
But, as the torch was being handed off, an assassin’s bullets struck down John F. Kennedy.
It (was) 50 years ago (today).
Plenty of Baby Boomers — and others — remember what they were doing when they heard the news.
It was the end of Camelot, a magical myth of nobility, grace and elegance named after the president’s favorite Broadway musical.
Replete with the imagery of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the myth was spun by White House sycophants. But it was sustained by a public hungry for a royal family.
Kennedy came to power as Americans seemed to be yawning their way through a mid-century lull in world upheaval. We were at peace. Urban unrest, the civil rights struggle, our plunge deep into a Vietnam quagmire and campus turmoil lay yet ahead.
Indeed, Kennedy relied on a manufactured crisis — a non-existent “missile gap” with the Soviet Union — as a major campaign issue.
He had good looks, wealth and a strong attraction to women — never mind that we later learned it was one he abused. Of course it was a package deal. Along with JFK came a wife who rounded out the new Camelot in what seemed like a storybook princess role.
In any case, he was to become, as biographer Ralph Martin put it a few years later, “A Hero for Our Times.”
But the abbreviation of his presidency — barely 1,000 days long — left historians who grade White House tenures with a quandary. Hence the most frequent marks were A’s for style and I’s — or “Incompletes” — for substance.
Like the rest of us, scholars sometimes have seemed to treat JFK as an unfinished sentence. They still tend to cast his handling of the Cuban missile crisis either as resolute or a capitulation to Russians who’d placed strategic weapons barely 90 miles from our shores.
He’s remembered for standing up to — or bullying — steelmakers, for tax cuts Ronald Reagan later cited as an engine for economic growth, or for — you name it.
Recent books alternatively stress what they call his fundamentally conservative, anti-communist bent or his leftward drift in his last few months in office.
Maybe none of this should surprise us. After all, he emerged from a political era much less polarized than our own. A half-century ago, both major parties included leaders of both conservative and liberal hues.
As the cracks of rifle shots brought down the final curtain on Camelot, our sense of loss was mostly about unfulfilled promise — Kennedy’s and our own. Either way, it was a promise we had variously shaped to fit our own peculiar needs.
Consider how political columnist Mary McGrory and scholar Daniel Patrick Moynihan commiserated in the wake of the assassination.
“We will never laugh again,” McGrory insisted to Moynihan, later a presidential aide, diplomat and U.S. senator.
“Oh, Mary,” Moynihan replied. “We’ll laugh again. But we will never be young again.”