John F. Kennedy stood in front of the U.S. Capitol Building, his breath visible on a freezing winter day, and said, "My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
His words electrified a generation.
Like many college students today, those of us who were young then generally found politics irrelevant to our lives. Politics was a country of old men -- Dwight Eisenhower was the president for our formative years, and we did not know him as an older generation did, as the dashing "Ike" who led the crusade to liberate Europe. We knew him as a man who'd had a heart attack who presided over a nation of tidy suburbs. Dads drove to work in Chevrolets or Fords, moms cleaned up with the help of their new GE dishwashers. We saw a nation of consumers, watching their new TV sets, striving for better jobs in their grey flannel suits (the men at least -- the women vacuumed, but not usually in their pearls, as in Leave It To Beaver.)
We were far more interested in rock and roll, James Dean, beat writers and French filmmakers than in politics. As far as political activism went, we were called, "The Silent Generation."
And then came JFK.
A door swung open for us. He said that public service was an honorable profession, that politics was not just a game for hacks and cronies, but a way to change the world.
America suddenly became an exciting place in which to be young.
He created the Peace Corps, and we joined in droves. We went into politics and government and journalism. We worked for civil rights. Three of us -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- were murdered in Mississippi because they dared to disagree with "Segregation Now, Segregation Forever."
JFK came late to a full understanding of the two worlds of black and white America, focused as he was on cold war tensions with the Soviets. But when he saw the police dogs and the fire hoses being used against peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, he insisted he was going on television right away. On June 11, 1963, the day that Alabama governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama blocking black students trying to enroll, the president went on national TV with his strongest statement yet on civil rights. He cast it as a moral issue as old as the Scriptures, a challenge to everything America stood for.
He spoke out forcefully against Jim Crow and drafted a civil rights bill. We saw him as the future, what our nation could be.
When I was a senior in college, when he was a senator from Massachusetts and I was the editor of the Trinity College Times in Washington D.C. I interviewed him. In his office, we spoke, not so much of the great issues of the day, but of a trade bill he was trying to get through the senate. In the middle of the interview, a bell rang signaling a vote on the senate floor, and he invited me to ride with him on the tram that ferried legislators underground from their offices to the floor of the Senate. I had the sense of the magical presence he already had, as heads turned as he strode briskly along the corridor. In the tram, he asked me what I was going to do with my life. I said I was going to be a journalist, and he grinned and said, "I hope you make it."
And then my clip earring slipped off the lobe of my ear and bounced to the floor and he had to grub under the seat to find it. I had this terrible fear that my brief journalism career was ended, that JFK would glare at me and thunder, "You call yourself a journalist, you klutz!" But he only smiled and handed me the little fake-gold bit of jewelry and I hurried after him as he went to cast his vote.
I did come to the White House as a real reporter a few years later, and when I worked up my nerve to remind him of the errant earring, he grinned and said, "Glad you made it, kid."
And what I saw, as I covered him, was the power of politics, used well and justly. The civil rights bill crafted by Kennedy and passed by LBJ ended Jim Crow forever; no more black-and-white bathrooms, lunch counters and hotels. Intimidation at the voting booth became illegal (although the Republicans now seem determined to bring it back.)
Throughout my life, politics, legislation and the courts were the engines of change. Civil Rights reshaped the nation -- though the job is not completed. Title IX gave women and girls equal access to education and sports facilities; sexual harassment and discrimination against people with disabilities were ended.
But I see now, on my own campus and on many others, that politics has again become irrelevant to the lives of so many young people. They see the gridlock, the scandals, the hypocrisy, the seeming inability to get anything done. They turn more to person-to-person efforts, to NGOs to web-based actions and to social media channels. And I applaud that; why not use the new technology to its fullest?
But I say to them, don't ignore JFK's challenge to use the power of government to re-imagine the landscape. Throughout our history, reformers have moved most swiftly by using the wheels of democracy to turn in a different direction. Sometimes, with the stroke of a pen, the world changes. FDR did it with his new deal programs; Kennedy and Johnson with the civil rights bills. In many states today, a vote is giving gay and lesbian Americans the right to love and work as they choose.
The heroine of my novel Camelot is a young woman journalist, who, like me, covered JFK. She stands at the eternal flame shorty after his burial, thinking about her generation:
"It would always be one brief and shining moment for them; always in their memories, burnished and gleaming as the years rolled on.
"No matter what the historians wrote, no matter what other, colder eyes saw about him, he was part of them when they were young, and that would never change. The way they lived their lives would be different because of him. In her own work, she thought, there would always be the belief, We can change things. We can do anything."
As the 50th anniversary of JFK's sudden and tragic death arrives, I hope that for the young, his political legacy will endure. I hope they too will use politics to bend to nation to a better, fairer shape.
"We can do anything>"
Caryl Rivers' novel Camelot has been republished as an e-book by Diversion Press. She is a professor of journalism at Boston University.