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How We Should Remember John F. Kennedy

To honor his memory, it’s important to place him in his era of bold optimism and hard realism—and alongside other great leaders of that eraNEWTON N. MINOW

“Kennedy described and also prescribed the time perfectly in his inaugural address when he spoke of “a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.” Kennedy was not alone in his conviction, and as we reflect on his tragic death, we might think as well of four other transformational men and women who died in a six-year period between 1962 and 1968. Eleanor Roosevelt and Pope John XXIII died in 1962 and 1963, respectively, after long and productive lives. Six years later, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, like Jack Kennedy, died as young men at the hands of assassins. All five died having transformed the way we think about ourselves as citizens and as people. All changed my life profoundly, as they did the world at large, and I had the good fortune to know three of them. None were perfect—they were all in some way flawed—but they were leaders of a kind we have not seen again, idealists without illusions. They could be skeptics, but never cynics, and they had steady faith in the future. They believed deeply in human rights and the process and the judgments of democracy. That all five died within such a short span, leaving the legacies they did, is what I think about on this anniversary.”

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