Kennedy’s unfinished life

Today’s 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination reveals as much about history as a relative truth as it does the tragedy of a life unfinished.

As University of Washington Prof. Ken Pyle said Monday in his Griffith and Patricia Way lecture, history gives expression to the time and place in which the historian is writing. It gets rewritten each generation, with the past determined by the present.

Kennedy through a 21st-century lens alights on his poor health, his sex life and the spectacle of his murder. Tune out the noise, turn off the television. We create myths in order to live.

Pyle, who lectured on Hiroshima and the historians, not JFK, quoted John Keegan. “Historians are committed to controversy as a way of life.”

One non-controversial note is Kennedy’s gift as a rhetorician. JFK loved language, studied Churchill and had the brilliant Ted Sorensen as a speechwriter.

In 1961, he delivered a speech at the UW to mark the university’s centennial. It’s a distillation of America’s foreign policy values. The principles are eternal, even if practice and theory never quite align.

“We cannot, as a free nation, compete with our adversaries in tactics of terror, assassination, false promises, counterfeit mobs and crises,” Kennedy said. “We cannot, under the scrutiny of a free press and public, tell different stories to different audiences, foreign and domestic, friendly and hostile.”

In fact, we did compete with our adversaries on the assassination front, with Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam and CIA plots to kill Fidel Castro. Fast-forward to today’s targeted drone killings and the attendant deaths of innocent civilians. Exceptions to the rule or the rule itself?

Kennedy’s speech challenged the American people to fulfill the promise of freedom in a dangerous world.

We don’t fully live up to the calling, and that’s natural. It’s an ideal, a lodestar. Values are permanent; human nature is imperfect.

Consider JFK’s observation that day in Seattle on the flow of American arms. A half century later, his remarks resonate.

“We send arms to other peoples — just as we send them the ideals of democracy in which we believe — but we cannot send them the will to use those arms or to abide by those ideals,” he said.

Recast the conundrums of today — from the NSA’s mass surveillance to Guantanamo Bay — in light of the president’s words. “We find ourselves unable to escape the responsibilities of freedom, and yet unable to exercise it without restraints imposed by the very freedoms we seek to protect.”

JFK understood the nature of power and the power of language. A careless, brilliant, imperfect human, seen through a contemporary lens.

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