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John Fitzgerald Kennedy: He Speaks to Us Still

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. LARSON of Connecticut. Our topic today is a solemn one and yet a hopeful one. It is about the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He speaks to us still.

In November 1983, I submitted an op-ed piece to our local paper, the East Hartford Gazette, on President Kennedy. It is hard to believe that 30 years have passed since I submitted that document.

Most, including myself, and especially the Kennedy family, would rather not dwell on the events that transpired on November 22 and that ensuing weekend, but rather on the President's birth, and celebrate his heroic service. Indeed, May 29 should be a national day of remembrance.

I am proud to say that the entire New England delegation has dropped in a resolution today calling upon Congress to recognize May 29, the birthday of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, as a day of remembrance.

President Kennedy, if we were alive, would be 96 years old. It is hard to imagine, even today, because of the image of that youthful, vigorous, witty, energetic man who we still see in TV clips and who speaks to us still. That beautiful man was taken from us in the summer of his years.

For my parents' generation, December 7, 1941, as President Roosevelt appropriately put it, would be a day that would live in infamy. For my children and so many of this current generation, myself included, September 11, 2001, will be recalled as another day of infamy. For my generation, however, it remains November 22, 1963, the day the Nation stood still in shock and disbelief.

As a New Englander, the shot heard round the world on that day was not the one fired at Lexington and Concord, but in Dallas, Texas. That shot cut down the 35th President of the United States, ended dreams of Camelot, and cut short the life of an American hero.

Almost everyone can recall where he or she was and what they were doing when they first heard the news of the assassination of John Kennedy. Fifty years after his death, the country still gropes for answers and searches to fill the void created by his departure.

It was sixth period in Mr. Desmond's French class when Mrs. Bray's voice, noticeably shaken, announced over the loud speaker at East Hartford High School that the President had been shot. An unsettling silence that was laden with anxiety fell over a perplexed and unbelieving class. Attempts to calm the class were fumbled by a visibly stunned teacher as he sought answers to a host of questions. Such an irrational act. It just couldn't be.

In what seemed to be within minutes, Mrs. Bray's tearful voice announced that the President of the United States had died. Hollow disillusionment and deep sadness engulfed not only the classroom, but the entire Nation. Despair was replaced by speculation concerning the perpetrator of such an act.

Walking home from school, conjecture of this heinous crime centered on the KGB and Castro as likely culprits, but even conjuring up these villains brought no resolve.

When I reached home, my mother, with Kleenex in hand, sat motionless next to the TV. She was glassy-eyed, shaken, and unable to comprehend the events of the day that saw the first President born in this century--and the first Catholic--struck down.

The family gathered around the TV and waited for Dad to come home. Surely, he could explain. When my father arrived, everything from the Russians to the Texans were mulled over, as he revealed various theories discussed in the shop at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, but all with the same anguish and perplexity.

Thus began a family vigil with Walter Cronkite. But even he, the most trusted man in America, couldn't explain to the viewing public the way it was on November 22, 1963.

It was a numbing experience for our family and the rest of the country as we sat in shock, traumatized, as the first real-time media account of the sixties unfolded in our living room. In a weekend that never seemed to end, we witnessed a Nation in mourning, the apprehension and then murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, and the subsequent arrest of crime figure Jack Ruby, all unveiling and unfolding themselves on TV. The plot only seemed to become more complicated.

The complexities of American society and the very fabric of our way of life in this Nation hit home like never before.

What I most recall, and what I believe most Americans recall, from that weekend are the vivid scenes and images of that ordeal:

The distressed widow in a blood-stained pink suit, with all the dignity and strength and nobility that she could muster, being met at Andrews Air Force Base by Robert Kennedy; the long lines passing through the Rotunda to pay their last respects, including James Michael Fitzgerald from our hometown in East Hartford; the veiled face of Jacqueline Kennedy as she kneeled over the coffin, clutching the hand of her daughter, Caroline; the Kennedy brothers in silhouetted support of the First Lady and the family; those boots placed backwards in the stirrups of Black Jack, the horse following the caisson; the procession of world leaders en route to Arlington; a weekend of images culminating in John-John's final salute to his dad.

I will never forget that weekend of tragedy, wrought with emotion and dream-crushing reality. Its impact and the impact of other events in that decade perhaps won't be fully understood, though we are fixated on this.

Before I yield to our leader, to put it in perspective, I would say this. As William Manchester noted:

In November of 1963, among the living were Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and 58,209 young men who would die in Vietnam over the next 9 years.

I yield to our leader, noting that, as we said at the outset, we prefer not to dwell on the events of the day but on the heroic nature of this President and what he meant to so many people--and continues to do so. He continues to speak to us, as does our leader, Nancy Pelosi, who knew him personally.


Mr. LARSON of Connecticut. I thank the leader.

I would point out, in history there are often iconic pictures. One has to wonder in looking at the pictures that grace museums across this country: That man who set a torch to be passed to another generation, could he have known when he was shaking Bill Clinton's hand that he would be a future President of the United States? Could he have known when he met with Tommy D'Alessandro's daughter that she would be the first woman Speaker of the House?

That was the inspiration of Kennedy, who touched so many people, and our leaders Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer typify a generation drawn into public service not only because of the inspiration but because of the calling of President Kennedy to public service.

The minority whip, Steny Hoyer.


Mr. LARSON of Connecticut. I thank our leader, and I thank him for his poignancy. I know how much it means to people listening to have a glimpse into history as it unfolded, and also the real-life experience of our great leader and President.

David Brinkley described that moment. He said that the assassination was beyond understanding:

The events of those days don't fit, you can't place them anywhere, they don't go in the intellectual luggage of the time. It was too big, too sudden, too overwhelming, and it meant too much. It has to be separate and apart.

But we want to, as both our leaders have said, remember this President in the way that we viewed him in his heroic importance to this country and to generations then and now. Jacqueline Kennedy--as Ralph Martin, her biographer, said--talked about a person who had written to her about the President, and she said someone who had loved the President, but had never known him, wrote to me this past winter that:

The hero comes when he is needed. When our belief gets pale and weak, there comes a man out of that need who is shining--and everyone living reflects a little of that light--and stores up some against the time when he is gone.

``So now he is a legend,'' Mrs. Kennedy would conclude, ``when he would have preferred to be a man.''

And so it has been--Steinbeck said of Kennedy:

This man who was the best of his people and who by his life and death, gave back the best of them for their own.

Arthur O'Shaughnessy, the great Irish poet, said:

For each age there is a dream that is dying and one that is coming to birth.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy embodied dreams that were coming to birth and, through his Presidency, ushered in the future dreams of this century and the next.

Heroes. Heroes are those people we admire for their accomplishments, their character, and their ability to inspire. They are often an extension of what we would like to be. If John Kennedy had never been President of the United States, he would still have been a bona fide hero. His war record alone was heroic, his Pulitzer Prize admirable, and when you combine that with his personality, wit, and intelligence, you have a man to emulate and respect.

It is as President, however, that we remember John Kennedy. And in that capacity, his greatness came from being the cog, the catalyst, the spark that ignited the tremendous latent strength of our great Nation. Summoning the Nation like no other President before him, Kennedy established goals for excellence and raised the consciousness of the American people to a level of dignity benefiting a Nation embarking on building a positive future not just for the Nation, but for mankind.

Some would say John Kennedy was a tragic hero, much like the tragic heroes of Greek literature and Shakespearean plays. Kennedy was neither Achilles nor Hamlet. He was a man who, through sheer force of personality and conviction, motivated and excited people. He moved a Nation. What he shares with ancient heroes was the great promise of youth, cut short by death before that promise could be fulfilled.

James Reston wrote:

The tragedy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was greater than the accomplishment, but in the end tragedy enhances the accomplishment and revives hope.

What died in Dallas on November 22 was promise, the hallmark of both the Kennedy administration and the man.

``It's sad to see what happened in this country,'' Ted Sorenson has commented.

It's as if people don't want to believe in anything today. Sometimes they even turn against John Kennedy because perhaps he was the last man they believed in.

Sorenson's remarks are well taken. I share his sadness and tire of cynics who seek only to tear down, discredit, destroy, and, in general, believe in nothing. I do not share, and I am sure most don't, an untainted or distorted view of John Kennedy. For whatever his human foibles and shortcomings may have been, his rhetoric of purpose, his goals for this Nation, are still worth believing in and aspiring towards.

Others will say that Kennedy had a superficial charisma, hyped by his ability to manipulate the media. Ralph Martin, a biographer of Kennedy, notes:

John Kennedy had more than charisma. Sports figures have charisma. He had more than the magnetic attraction of a movie star. What Kennedy had was real. Magic.

He clearly was charismatic. He clearly was magnetic. He was poetic. But above all else, the magic that he had was real. John Kennedy's appeal was not limited to this country, it was worldwide, as Steny Hoyer pointed out. Throngs gathered throughout the world not to chant anti-American slogans or to protest. They came to touch, to hear, to see the man who represented the hope of the free world. One has only to recall the vivid scenes in Berlin to realize there was a special magic about John Kennedy. The excitement was real.

John Kennedy struck a chord in all of us. Republican Senator Hugh Scott's wife asked:

Why are you crying? You didn't have that much admiration for him.

To which he said:

I am not crying for him. I am crying for the American people.

What John Kennedy meant to America is lodged deeply in our hearts and minds. He opened the door through his challenge and beckoned the people to a greater future, a new frontier. He was our voice. History will probably bear out that a thousand days was too short a time to judge the greatness of Kennedy as a President, but it will also bear out what Robert Kennedy said of his brother's legacy:

The essence of the Kennedy legacy is a willingness to try and to dare and to change, to hope for the uncertain and risk the unknown.

It is in that context that the civil rights movement, the Bay of Pigs, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Cuban missile crisis, the space race, and other actions of his administration will be judged, with the constant footnote to that ancient thief--time.

``It was all too brief,'' Ted Kennedy said of his brother's era.

Those thousand days are like an evening gone. But they are not forgotten. You can recall those years of grace, that time of hope. The spark still glows. The journey never ends. This dream shall never die.

It is the end of the story of Camelot that takes on significance, and that Jacqueline Kennedy would speak so fondly of when she would talk of her husband. It was the point when King Arthur tells of his legends to a young boy, so they would still remember them even if he were killed in battle.

Fifty years have passed and the life and death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy still holds us captive. It is the topic of every magazine, of every news story, on every television show. But we always need to make sure that we separate the myth from the man. John Kennedy was not a myth. He was a real man with hopes and fears and doubts, and the same human frailties and many disabilities that we never even knew about. His time in office was too short to objectively evaluate his long-term objectives and goals, but we can never forget him or let him go.

Chris Matthews, in his recent book, talks about a conversation that he had with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and he recalled that Moynihan said to him, ``We've never gotten over it.'' And looking at Matthews, he said, as Chris points out with generous appreciation, ``You've never gotten over it.''

Matthews said:

I saw it as a kind of benediction, an acceptance into something warm and Irish and splendid, a knighthood of the soulful.

We have never gotten over it.

John Kennedy is a hero because of the message he brought, the hope and the dreams he inspired. He set a standard by which all successive Presidents are measured. He united the country on the great issues of the day, guided the Nation through crisis by calling on the American people to uplift their expectations, their goals, and their fellow man. It wasn't hollow rhetoric or dazzling showmanship; it was sincere and compelling belief in the purpose of this country and its people.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy is a hero for all time and for those who believe in the promise of America because he elevated what it means to serve in government on behalf of the people. He made public service, whether it be elective office, serving as a House clerk, or in the Peace Corps noble and honorable pursuits. He made poetry, literature, and the arts in general a part of the fabric of our everyday life, and he did it all with the ease, grace, wit, humor, and understated elegance that exuded the confidence of the Nation he led and further ennobled his countrymen.

For those who listen, he speaks to us still.

This Thanksgiving as we pause, let us remember and be grateful for the great gift he gave us for that one bright, shining moment that there came the hero. And let us use that light to enlighten not only this Chamber but the world. And as President Kennedy would say so often, then let us go forward to lead the land we love, asking God's blessing, but knowing here on Earth His work is our own.

Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of my time.


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