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'Truly one': Recalling the unifying legacy of John F. Kennedy

TALNEYWith the 52nd anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy approaching, I tend to look back — like so many others in my age group — on where I was when that awful news was received. It is one of the few moments in my life when I can recall exactly where I was and what I was doing.

I was working for the State of Oregon in the Unemployment Compensation Division of the Department of Employment as a claims adjuster. It was not a particularly engaging way to earn a living, but I was also attending night law school, so I knew it was not to be my life’s work.

I also recall when Kennedy was elected to the presidency. It was 1960. As presidents go, I was accustomed to the likes of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, old guys by my calculations. Truman was perceived as a rather grumpy, somewhat uncouth nobody who somehow arrived in the office of President through an accident of history — the unfortunate death of a national icon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eisenhower was seen as an amiable old general, a war hero with no political background or apparent political skills. (It should be noted, however, that the passage of time has been kinder to the legacy of both men.)

I was not prepared for the youth, glamour and vitality of a Kennedy campaigning vigorously against a rather slippery old political pro like Richard Nixon. I became interested in politics for the first time. Here at last was the prospect for youthfulness in our national and international affairs. A new day.

I remember watching the first televised presidential debate and, like so many others, noting the energy displayed by Kennedy and his ability to connect with a national audience, versus the “Tricky Dick” appearance of Nixon, with his unfortunate five o’ clock shadow that made him look even more furtive. Nor will I ever forget Kennedy’s inaugural call to the youth of America to think not of what America could do for them, but what they could do for America.

It was the call to my future, as I saw it, idealistic in retrospect, but one I needed to hear. And one, however simplistic, that I will never forget. It was one of the main reasons I later attended law school — an opportunity to shape my own future in ways that might benefit the larger society.

So on that fateful day, late morning, I was sitting at my desk as usual, engrossed in my daily routine, when the word quietly spread throughout the large, open space of our offices that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas while participating in a massive parade through the downtown area. Not much more was known at that moment. But we were all stunned. A silence descended over the people congregated there, employees and claimants alike, as we awaited more information. Business continued, but with tears flowing down our faces. Little was said, but much was felt.

And then the news finally came that he was, in fact, dead.

I remember I was interviewing a man, a merchant seaman with a California claim, who was “on the beach,” as they called it, laid off in Portland and waiting to ship out. He was large and gruff-looking, his face weathered like old siding from his years at sea. The sort of guy you would not want to run into in the proverbial dark alley. But with tears running down his weathered cheeks, he picked up his check for the prior week and looked at me, a stranger.

“Ain’t no justice,” he said, quietly. “Ain’t no justice.”

I nodded. And with that, he got up and slowly walked away. I never saw him again, but his stricken face remains imbedded in my memory to this day, a grown man who had seen so much of the world, weeping for the death of another man he never knew but who had promised so much.

Kennedy’s accomplishments in office at that point were, indeed, not viewed as great. While he had brought a new style to the office of the President, it was thought there had not been much substance. In fact, we tend to forget that his trip to Dallas was in part to boost his falling poll numbers and to prepare for the re-election campaign that lay ahead. It is only in retrospect that we can, as we do with his predecessors, Truman and Eisenhower, truly evaluate the man and his time and what he brought to us beyond the glitz and glamour of the Kennedy family.

He brought us the future, bold and bright. A reaching out to the world, through such as the Peace Corps, the space program and other programs directed both to the youth of America and to those still young despite their years. And for that one collective moment when the news came to us all in that crowded office space, as we milled around, lost and momentarily broken, we were truly one people.

Yes, truly one.

Lake Oswego resident Ronald Talney is a retired trial lawyer, writer and poet. In 1985, he wrote the official dedication poem for the statue, Portlandia. Look for his column, “My World,” on the second Thursday of the every month in The Review.