Some of that transition occurred during his struggle with Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, which prompted his race speech in June 1963. But some of it happened two months later, after the March on Washington. The principal organizers visited Kennedy in the White House the evening of the march. “I have a dream,” Kennedy told King in that setting, at that moment enlisting fully in King’s cause. There was no turning back.
The youth rebellion
“The Port Huron Statement,” the Students for a Democratic Society manifesto written by Tom Hayden in 1962, sometimes is regarded as the clarion of 1960s upheaval, but much of the decade’s social, political and cultural tumult grew out of opposition to the Vietnam War and impatience on civil rights. So, it is possible to posit that a withdrawal from Vietnam and a frontal assault on segregation might have prevented or ameliorated the rebellion of the 1960s.
Kennedy was a hero to American youth — but he had more in common with the Rat Pack than with the counterculture. He was a libertine but did not flaunt his sexual adventurism; he acknowledged he was a combination of promiscuity and Puritanism. Even his language was antiquarian; he spoke of “dames,” not “chicks.” He was a drug abuser, but his drugs were prescription medications meant to ease his pain, not to provide a sense of ease or elevated consciousness.
Kennedy had an inherent suspicion of big business — he took on the steel barons in a celebrated 1962 confrontation — but believed in capitalism. His heroes were establishment figures like Marlborough, his blood raced to the rhythms of Kipling, his heart swung to the beat of Sinatra. He was more idealistic than iconoclastic.
Kennedy wouldn’t have thrown in his lot with the new culture — but he wouldn’t, and probably couldn’t, have stopped it. The rebellion of the 1960s might have been less rooted in protest with Kennedy alive, but the new generation, reared in the prosperity of the consumer culture and the probity of the college campus, was going to create a world that went beyond JFK, even had he lived to witness it — and be bewildered by it.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.