Thursday, January 20, 2011

Camelot Begins, January 20, 1961

KennedyInaugurationToday is the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. There are various commemorations of it at places such as the Kennedy Library in Boston and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. But I don’t need much of a reminder because I remember the event vividly.

As a politically precocious ten-year-old, I met Senator Kennedy on the campaign trail on October 28, 1960 and got his autograph.  This close brush with history intensified my interest in the campaign, and I can still see the black-and-white vote total boards awarding the election to the young senator.

In fact, my interest grew to the point that I expected that my family and I were going to the Inauguration. My father had only a fleeting interest in politics and the prospect of this occurring was non-existent. Still, I persevered, even selecting a smart brown overcoat for the occasion.

Well, it didn’t happen. But I followed the news coverage, including the various cabinet appointments, and then was riveted to the television on January 20, 1961. Here’s what I remember: It was a very cold day with lots of snow in Washington; Robert Frost seemed befuddled when smoke billowed out of the podium; and Kennedy seemed the beau ideal of a political figure.

Looking back over the years, that inauguration and the Kennedy years seem to be characterized by a certain innocence. Of course, it was the height of the Cold War and bareknuckle politics was actively practiced. But politics and government were largely removed from the rancor and polarization that has become so prominent in recent years.

Despite whatever flaws Kennedy had, he exuded grace, and the American people respected his office and respected Kennedy as the officeholder. Perhaps the only other President of the past half-century who had a similar presence was Ronald Reagan.

That time now seems so far away, even if you remember it well. The world has changed so much across different sectors. Think about President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy: Do public figures look like them today? It seems not; they projected a unique, regal air.

The Kennedy years were brief—as Theodore Sorenson reminded us with the title of his book A Thousand Days: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (although it was actually 1,036 days). For me and probably for many, the most crucial time of his presidency was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

And certainly there was the day in Dallas thirteen months later when Camelot came to an end. That Friday afternoon and the seemingly long, long weekend was capped by the very mournful funeral on Monday. The shock, pain and numbness would not be matched until September 11, 2001.

I have two regrets from fifty years ago. One is that the autograph affixed to a Saturday Evening Post cover, featuring a Norman Rockwell image of Kennedy, was sold by me as a teenager for $50. The other was that even while attending a spectacular Inaugural gala performance in 1985, headlined by Frank Sinatra, I still wished that I could have made that inauguration twenty-four years earlier.

See the Inaugural Address:

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