Hardwired into my brain is President Kennedy’s American University speech, which of course I never heard but whose words I know by heart. (“I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children.”)
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory is the Kennedy Trade Mart speech, which I also never heard, because no one ever heard it, as it was to be delivered later that afternoon in Dallas. (Words to remember, even so: “We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom.”)
And I cannot count the times I have told my kids that they should take on some challenge not because it is easy but because it is hard. (They know nothing of JFK’s Rice University speech of 1962 that set America on a trajectory to the moon, but they have heard its theme many times.)
All these years later — a husband, a father, a newspaper editor, above all a premature but recondite old timer, maybe even a relic — I still am drawn to John Kennedy, not so much for what he did but for what he represented. If, as Kennedy said in an unforgettable phrase, Winston Churchill mobilized the English language, then it can be said that John Kennedy mobilized the American idiom in service of American idealism. His eloquence was a fire that truly lit the world, and anyone of my turn of mind knows exactly why that phrase jumped effortlessly from my fingers, and why it courses through my veins and shapes my thoughts, even now, even after so much time, even after so much revisionism, even after so much cynicism.