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What we lost with JFK's assassination

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Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

It seems impossible that it was 50 years ago this Friday that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Anyone who was at least a teenager then remembers the shock in the air, the feeling that things had changed forever.

If you were a ninth-grader at Serra Catholic High School that day, you will never forget the young Franciscan friar writing on the blackboard when the announcement came over the loudspeaker that the president had been shot. Legs buckling, he collapsed against the wall, as if he, too, had been struck.

There was the urgent call to the gymnasium for Mass and prayers for the president's survival, only to have it changed halfway through to prayers for the repose of his soul. After, the always rowdy boys quietly boarded the buses and returned to their blue-collar neighborhoods, changed now.

When the dads' shifts ended and they walked that last stretch home, you could see from the porches that they were silent, too, and as they peeled off at the houses along the street, no one spoke; each man cried. It was as though there had been the same death in every family.

For the parents, Kennedy was one of theirs, even though he was anything but working class. He was young, still having babies, returned from a war in which he and his family had sacrificed, like their families. Like them, he embraced his ethnic heritage and was a Roman Catholic.

So they were ready when Kennedy challenged them, saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Together, they would take America to the next level. But in an instant it was over.

When that spirit was lost, life changed on a practical level. Looking back, skepticism replaced trust, and the arts of compromise and fence-mending, curious artifacts to today's politicians, faded as the political parties began fraying from within.

When Kennedy won the nomination for president, his first act was to choose Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas, his archrival, as his vice-presidential nominee. Kennedy would have lost Texas and the presidency had he not reached out.

As it was, he beat Richard Nixon in a squeaker but he formed a government that acknowledged that, building bridges. He named Republicans to head Defense, Treasury and the CIA.

Kennedy, resisting pressure from his own military advisers, spent three years trying to get Nikita Khrushchev to limit nuclear weapons. At the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, he had finally begun to see some movement.

And that trip to Dallas, to his death, was fence-mending in a Southern state still rattled by his recent public foray into the civil rights struggle. He was looking for common ground, for consensus.

We lost a lot that day — more than just dreams.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).

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