50 years later, we remember Camelot, and what it meant

The trappings of the presidency of John F. Kennedy were branded Camelot. It was a fitting term to capture the time of the youthful president in the Oval Office. The country seemed to be in a perfect place. He seemed to be the ideal president for the times pitch-perfect in an era when the country was growing and flexing its muscles.

And then the music stopped. Bullets interrupted a sunny day in Dallas, Texas, fatally taking down President Kennedy, and forever changing the tenor of our country.

Today we mark 50 years since that fateful day and it is still hard to pinpoint what that day meant, what Kennedy meant, his place in history, and the full, long-term significance of his assassination on our country.

A half century later, it is easy to forget the divisions Kennedy was attempting to sew together in our country. The trip to Dallas was made with trepidation to what was almost enemy territory at that time, an attempt by the New England president to soothe still open Southern wounds. It is hard for many of us to recall that racial divides were still so deep in the early 60s that Kennedy, while trying to drive a civil rights movement, was trying to do it with velvet gloves.

Even today, it is difficult to assess Kennedy’s performance as president. In his three years in office, there had not been a landmark legislative achievement. There was the Bay of Pigs fiasco and a very touchy Cuban missile crisis, with all-out war narrowly averted. There was the pushing of something called a mission to the moon. Kennedy was just starting to actively and openly advance the cause of civil rights. It is fair to say his presidential signature was not yet written.

And yet, looking back, it’s clear that he had already found his historical home in the hearts of almost all Americans. He was the quintessential president with the ability to inspire Americans, whether they agreed with his stance on a particular issue or not. He had what we look for, and so desperately need, in our presidents an ability to embody with his presence our hopes and dreams and confidence in who we are.

John F. Kennedy, our first Catholic president, bridged political ideologies and petty differences with a style that made all of us confident that somehow the country’s challenges would be met.

Today, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas and his passing amid deep divisions, we need to remember not just where we were when the country changed, but what President Kennedy gave us that we still miss.