America lost its 35th president, John F. Kennedy, to an assassin’s bullet fifty years ago this month. His was a very public death, never more so than now, when multiple documentaries chronicle every detail of those tragic four days in 1963. But we should not let the inevitable focus on that death obscure the fact that JFK’s life as president has some enduring lessons for 21st century Americans.

To wit: You can disagree civilly, even cordially. John F. Kennedy proudly carried the New Deal standard throughout his abbreviated term. But he never regarded partisan differences as evidence of bad faith, and he maintained friendly relations with his rivals. He befriended Richard Nixon as a congressman, worked with him across the aisle in the Senate and narrowly defeated him for the presidency in 1960. Neither man belittled or demeaned the other afterward.

Similarly, a decade after scoring an improbable victory over Henry Cabot Lodge for Massachusetts Senate in 1950, President Kennedy tapped Lodge to serve as his ambassador to Vietnam, a demanding assignment. At the time of his death, Kennedy and probable GOP rival Barry Goldwater were contemplating barnstorming the country in the 1964 campaign, traveling together and debating the issues without moderators in every major city. They could not have been farther apart ideologically, but they preferred thoughtful argument to name-calling and personal attacks. We could restore a modicum of perspective to our politics if we followed JFK’s example.

Sometimes it’s better to hold your fire. Confrontation with the Communist world became a constant early in JFK’s term. In August 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall, a physical barrier separating east and west Berlin, to stanch an embarrassing hemorrhage of workers leaving the Communist east for the prosperous western sector of the city. This represented a clear violation of the agreement the Allies had made in Berlin in the 1945 peace conferences. Some advisers urged a robust military response, but JFK demurred.

He was perfectly content to let stand the worst public relations disaster in history — the “Communist workers’ paradise” forced to imprison its workers. Freedom has many difficulties, he told West Berliners in 1963, “and democracy is not perfect.” But, he added, “We have never had to build a wall to keep our people in.” The eyesore that was the Wall spoke continuously and eloquently of Communism’s failures and became a catalyst in the ending of the Cold War. You can carry a big stick, but sometimes it is more effective to speak quietly, or not to respond at all.

JFK favored a Robert Frost poem entitled “Choose Something like a Star,” because a star is something to “stay our minds on and be staid” in turbulent or stressful times. The president took that to mean people should look beyond temporal concerns in favor of the essential and eternal. He pointedly asked the opponents of the Civil Rights movement to consider how they would feel if they were African-American in Jim Crow America.

“If an American,” the president said in l963, “because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him … then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed?”

Surely, he implied, the Golden Rule must ultimately trump “states’ rights” or local custom. Just months after the Soviet Union attempted to put missiles on Cuba, the President urged Americans to look beyond the Soviet leaders’ overreach and see the Soviet people as their fellow humans.

“No social system is so evil,” the president said in June 1963, “that its people should be considered lacking in virtue.” After all, he continued, “We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

These sentiments soon informed a U.S.-Soviet treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, a dramatic de-escalation of the Cold War. Gazing upon on a far-off star, on what is fundamental and timeless, can indeed help stay our minds and lead us to a better place in our country and our world. We can do better. JFK was always urging his fellow citizens to aim higher. In his inaugural address, the president tapped into a deep well of American idealism, exhorting citizens to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Thousands responded by joining his brainchild, the Peace Corps, a global volunteer force of farmers, teachers, accountants and other experts still going strong in 2013.

President Kennedy challenged the nation to revisit its priorities, to temper its obsession with the best gadgets and fanciest tail fins and focus on big things, like space exploration, even a moon launch. Knowing Americans are fundamentally a pragmatic people, JFK invited them to discover the fine arts. He set the tone by inviting Robert Frost to read a poem at the 1961 inaugural celebration. Not long thereafter, the Kennedys hosted legendary cellist Pablo Casals for a rare U.S. concert at the White House. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy memorably showcased her knowledge of history and design in a televised tour of the White House on Valentine’s Day 1962. The president even created a national physical fitness craze by wondering aloud how many Americans could walk 50 miles in 20 hours.

Presidents nowadays tend to congratulate Americans on how wonderful and wise they are. We could use some Kennedy-style challenges to our complacency. President Kennedy has been gone 50 years. But the animating principles of his presidential life — civility, moderation, perspective and belief in his fellow citizens — continue to light the way towards a wiser, smarter and better United States in the decades and centuries to come.


Brigit Farley, of Pendleton, is a history professor at Washington State University and often teaches about the Kennedy presidency.

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