A Few Lessons from John F. Kennedy

November 22, 1963 marks a date that baby boomers and many in Generation X will remember. Just like you, as a Millennial, can remember where you were and how you felt when you received the news that the World Trade Center had been hit by a large airliner on September 11, those in earlier generations will always remember the events of November 22. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was shot through the head while riding in an open-top convertible in Dallas, Texas, 50 years ago this week.

As a common lesson in any High School American History class, many Millennials are familiar the story of JFK’s assassination. Most, however, are unfamiliar with JFK the man.

JFK was a champion for civil rights, tax cuts, free enterprise, and individual responsibility. He fiercely battled the world-wide spread of communism and sought to bring other politicians together to seek solutions instead of entangling himself in partisan squabbles. “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” He was, in his politics, a moderate. A devout Catholic, he presided over the launch of domestic programs including food stamps and what later became Medicare when passed in 1965, but also harbored deep suspicions of the creeping influence of the state. In a 1960 speech in which he declared himself a liberal, he provided heavy qualifiers that would make him sound like a modern-day conservative. “I do not believe in a super state,” he declared, “[and] I see no magic to tax dollars which are sent to Washington and then returned. I do not favor state compulsion when voluntary individual effort can do the job and do it well.

Let’s not forget the great space race. In 1961, JFK challenged the nation to claim a leadership role in space and land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960’s. The Soviet Union, considered as America’s rival and Cold War opponent, had surged ahead of the US with spectacular achievements in space that struck fear into the hearts of many American citizens. Soviet leaders hailed these feats as a triumph of Communism. When a leading American physicist was asked what would be found on the Moon, he replied, “Russians.”

But President Kennedy was convinced that with a strong commitment of a free people, America could get to the Moon first. He urged the nation to make that commitment. He appealed to the spirit of adventure, patriotism, and the cause of freedom. America responded in a huge way with one of the greatest mobilizations of resources and manpower in US history. 8 years later, 2 American astronauts were the first to walk on the Moon, boosting American confidence and prestige at home and around the world and supercharging space exploration and technology.

JFK’s accomplishments are fond memories for many earlier generations. His legacy provides many lessons that Millennials can also learn and apply:

“Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.”

Life deals blows to everyone at some point. But we each have an opportunity to choose how to react to them. Basically, you can complain and allow your 3-year-old self to declare, “Life is not fair.” Or, you can be strong. Learn from life’s challenges.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Liberty is the ability to be free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.  It is the power to act as you please with the knowledge that your inherent human rights are or should be protected. The ability for Millennials to pursue success in the manner they please is the culmination of the idea of liberty, and it’s worth defending.

“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”

In a world full of cheerios, be a fruit loop.

There are many other lessons that can be learned from great people like JFK. Applying those lessons may be difficult, but if you want to know the results, look at how the lives of those great people turned out. JFK, for one, became the youngest President of the United States who lived and died in true service his country, fighting to better the lives of all, whose legacy will not be forgotten. Even through generations like ours, who never knew him.

John F. Kennedy, Jr., salutes the horse-drawn caisson carrying his father’s casket
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