By Nick DAngelo
For fifty years the assassination of one of America’s most romanticized presidents has captivated generations. The fall from grace of the youthful, vigorous and admired leader sparked the beginning of national chaos that lasted decades, and is still largely felt today.
To Kennedy, 1964 was supposed to be different. His reelection, which was seen as quite likely, would serve as his mandate for true reform after his razor thin victory over Nixon in the previous contest. His likely Republican rival, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, was a cordial friend, and the two frequently discussed how they would conduct the campaign. Goldwater suggested a series of debates developed as a hybrid between Truman’s 1948 “whistle stop” tours and the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. Kennedy agreed. Both men would travel to every region of the country, on the same plane, vigorously debate without a moderator, and then return to the same plane. After Kennedy’s assassination, Goldwater seriously considered dropping out of the race, knowing that the honest, intellectual contest that both men had looked forward to was now impossible.
But the morning of November 22, President Kennedy had every indication to believe he could change the direction of the country. In fact, the text of the speech he would have delivered that night shed an important light on the theme he most likely would have campaigned on.
He was supposed to arrive in Austin, the state capital, that evening. Addressing the dinner gala of Texas Democrats, Kennedy’s speech had a simple message: unity.
Neither the fanatics nor the faint-hearted are needed. And our duty as a Party is not to our Party alone, but to the nation, and, indeed, to all mankind. Our duty is not merely the preservation of political power but the preservation of peace and freedom.
So let us not be petty when our cause is so great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake.
Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our cause—united in our heritage of the past and our hopes for the future—and determined that this land we love shall lead all mankind into new frontiers of peace and abundance.
Half a century later, when our nation still remains polarized and divided, Kennedy’s words are painfully resonant. Placing our time in perspective though, we have to wonder if it could have been different. It is one of the great “what ifs” of history. Had Kennedy lived, had his campaign against Goldwater gone as planned, and had he won, what would be different?
It is a fairy tale of speculation, but a story that may provide hope and inspiration. It is not too late. Although fifty years have passed since the speech would have been delivered, the message is as true today. “Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake.” In every major debate in our country we have seen the pains of division and the anger of partition, caricatured as passion, which has cost us dearly.
The day the president was assassinated it was a slow Friday. His youngest brother, Edward M. Kennedy, the 31-year-old freshman senator from Massachusetts, was presiding over the United States Senate. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield called the body into special session upon hearing the news of shots fired, and sixty-nine members filed on to the floor (an astounding number for a quiet Friday afternoon) to pray that the president was safe. As the senators prayed, led by Senate chaplain Frederick Brown, the president was already dead.
Borrowing the words of poet Edwin Markham, Reverend Brown told the somber chamber: “…We gaze at a vacant place against the sky, as the President of the Republic, like a giant cedar green with boughs, goes down with a great shout upon the hills, and leaves a lonesome place against the sky.”
Today, we can only hope to plant the seeds of another giant cedar, using Kennedy’s memory and legacy as an inspiration, to resurrect that triumphant place against the sky.