I was 6 years old when Kennedy and Nixon debated on television. But I still remember sitting with my parents watching them. It was the first time we could watch the two candidates confront each other. To hear them as they spoke, evaluate their ability to respond to pressure, and gauge their relative intelligence, judgment, and maturity.
In the end, Kennedy bested Nixon because his answers seemed based in something greater than political rhetoric. Kennedy's warmth, coolness under fire, and intellectual depth were in sharp contrast to Nixon's stilted and visibly sweaty performance.
People saw something in Kennedy that was beyond what would be expected of someone with his privileged roots. Despite his youth, he was a man who'd seen war from the most personal of perspectives. After being rammed by a destroyer and floating in the empty ocean with the burned survivors of his crushed torpedo boat, he understood that leadership, regardless of the level at which it is practiced, is primarily about instilling hope in the midst of uncertainty.
Kennedy grasped that our world is impossible to reduce to mere black and white. It isn't hard to imagine that, enveloped by the choking smoke and fog on the water that terrible night, he realized that any seemingly safe bright light in the darkness was most likely the destroyer coming back to pick off survivors. And that true safety lay in overcoming his fear and the fear of his crew while finding comfort in the shades of gray that surrounded them.
Though Kennedy was no pillar of virtue, the assessment the American people made that night proved correct. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, surrounded by older and vastly more experienced men who actually believed that nuclear war was winnable, Kennedy found a better way. Later, through his belief that greatness lay in the willingness to attempt what seems unachievable, he pointed us to the moon. All in just over a thousand days.
We have a similar decision to make now. And, in my opinion, Barack Obama seems to understand the complexities of our world better than anyone since Kennedy. While the arguments about his youth, his relative inexperience, his being either too black or not black enough, the genuineness of his Christian faith, and more sordid attacks on his character have roiled around him, he has continually focused us back on what we should be considering - the future and true meaning of this country.
It is no easy task. The fears generated by the attacks of 9/11 understandably caused us to long for some beacon of safety. Our current president has used that to divide the world into sharply delineated spheres of black and white, good and evil, and right and wrong. And divided us all against each other in the process.
Obama is trying to teach us that hope is the only true safe haven for all of us. And that the only way we're going to find it is to tolerate the shades of gray that swirl around us, to be able to acknowledge the reality of how different races experience prejudice in this county by saying, 'I love my pastor and understand his anger, though I reject the way in which he expresses it.' To understand that being an American isn't about believing a certain way, but tolerating others' rights to believe differently.
As our economy unravels in ways that defy even the best economists' abilities to explain, the basic American dream of home ownership fades due to unregulated corporate greed, and the middle class in this country continues to collapse, it would seem that we are not safe at all. That despite our best efforts, gray is still everywhere around us.
It may take someone like Obama, a person who in his own way is a living shade of gray, to point out to us that nothing at all has changed. That, just like Kennedy learned in the water with danger all around him, our true safety lies mainly in the willingness to see past our differences and cling even more tightly to one another in a frighteningly gray world … and, above all, to hope.