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Morton: Remembering the promise of JFK 53 years ago

Published: Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 11:19 p.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 12:50 a.m. CST

On this day (Jan. 20) in 1961, 43-year-old World War II naval hero, and second son of wealthy, controversial Boston Irish financier and former ”isolationist” ambassador to England, Joseph P. Kennedy, was sworn in as the 35th president of the U.S.

It was a bitterly cold, but sunny day in Washington, D.C., as the youngest man and first Catholic to be elected president (Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest man to serve as president.) took the oath of office from Chief Justice Earl Warren.

On this historic day, John (Jack) Fitzgerald Kennedy delivered an inaugural address that compares favorably – as to content, eloquence and delivery – with those of Thomas Jefferson (1801), Abraham Lincoln (1861) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933).

Kennedy reminded his listeners that his election as president was the time when “the torch” of presidential leadership passed to “a new generation of Americans.” He confidently said, “I do not shrink from this responsibility” (i.e., of leadership). “I welcome it.”

He asked fellow Americans to join him to “explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.” Kennedy’s now famous inaugural address was a clarion call to his fellow Americans to join him in what he termed the New Frontier, which was his version of a reform movement similar, in broad terms, to Roosevelt’s New Deal, to Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal, and to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

For many Americans, the tragedy of Kennedy’s term as president was that it was too brief and ended too suddenly and too violently for this intelligent, ambitious, witty, and handsome young chief executive to achieve the greatness, fame, and eminence that his inaugural address seemed to promise, or at least to foretell.

Famously Kennedy, toward the end of his inaugural address, appealed to his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” And then “to fellow citizens of the world; ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

The brevity and abrupt conclusion of JFK’s 1,037-day presidency has prompted many Americans to characterize his presidential term as one of unfulfilled promise. An impartial evaluation of Kennedy’s presidency discloses that there were a few notable achievements. For example, the 1961 creation of the Peace Corps, his adept handling of the1962 Cuban missile crisis, the creation of The Alliance for Progress, and his embracing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, but only after the Aug. 28, 1963, Civil Rights March on Washington, of equal rights for all Americans, whatever their race, economic and social status.

However, there also were several notable and memorable failures: The 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, and his failure to deal effectively with the growing crisis in Vietnam.

Although his actual achievements in the Oval Office were somewhat limited, the promise of his presidency, as delineated in his inaugural address, seemed almost unlimited. Warren’s eulogy seemed to have captured the sentiments of many Americans when he declared: “John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a great and good president, the friend of all people of good will; a believer in the dignity and equality of all human beings; a fighter for justice; and apostle of peace.”

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey added, presciently, that in his inaugural speech, JFK was “perhaps, a step or two ahead of the people.”

Even before his 1961 inauguration, conservative Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater loudly proclaimed that “I sincerely fear for my country if Jack Kennedy should be elected president. The fellow has absolutely no principles. Money and gall are all the Kennedys have.”

Even after his tragic assassination, Kennedy still had numerous critics, who included, surprisingly, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who after meeting with his successor, claimed that Kennedy had “an inadequate understanding of our American” political system.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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