I remember it vividly. I was 14 years old and watched it on television (black and white, naturally). It was a freezing day, blindingly white snow–Robert Frost couldn’t read his poem because of the glare. There were puffs of vapor with every exhale, as John F. Kennedy gave me, and my generation, our marching orders. The immediate burst of energy, of idealism, of high style, culture and intellectuality–the celebration of intellectuality as opposed to today’s celebration of ignorance–was intoxicating. I became, as did so many others, a Kennedy obsessive.
It was 50 years ago today, a lifetime away, a lifetime that would have been entirely different but for that one speech. I know much more about John F. Kennedy now, some of it not so pleasant. But that speech–before Vietnam, before Watergate, before the very notion of common purpose expressed through government action was denigrated by the greedy and cynical and the ill-informed–that speech expressed a world of possibilities, an exalted mission, a torch passed to a new generation of Americans. He was talking about his generation, our parents generation, but we thought he was talking about us.
We’ve not measured up to the mission he set out. His assassination, the violent truncation of his presidency, predicted our failures and frustrations. The path would never be so vivid and obvious as it seemed that chilly day. The idealism faded over time. But I know dozens and dozens of people who’ve devoted their lives to the service of others–and of our country–who made that decision on January 20, 1961. Their service has blessed them, and us, and his memory.