President John F. Kennedy once described himself as an “idealist without illusions.” Now in my 88th year as one of the dwindling number of surviving members of Kennedy’s administration, I often think of him. As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of his death, we should remember not only the man himself, great as he was and could have been. More important is the exceptional era he embodied and championed, an era of both bold optimism and hard realism.
Kennedy described and also prescribed the time perfectly in his inaugural address when he spoke of “a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.”
Kennedy was not alone in his conviction, and as we reflect on his tragic death, we might think as well of four other transformational men and women who died in a six-year period between 1962 and 1968. Eleanor Roosevelt and Pope John XXIII died in 1962 and 1963, respectively, after long and productive lives. Six years later, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, like Jack Kennedy, died as young men at the hands of assassins. All five died having transformed the way we think about ourselves as citizens and as people. All changed my life profoundly, as they did the world at large, and I had the good fortune to know three of them.
None were perfect—they were all in some way flawed—but they were leaders of a kind we have not seen again, idealists without illusions. They could be skeptics, but never cynics, and they had steady faith in the future. They believed deeply in human rights and the process and the judgments of democracy. That all five died within such a short span, leaving the legacies they did, is what I think about on this anniversary.
Eleanor Roosevelt, godmother of the women’s struggle for equal rights, forever changed the role of the first lady, leaving a record of and invitation to public service that her successors would follow. During FDR’s presidency, she gave visibility to human-rights issues at home and abroad, emphasizing the rights of women and children, the poor and African-Americans when few others did. Like her husband, she was skilled at using mass media to promote her causes, particularly in her popular syndicated column, “My Day.”
After FDR’s death in 1945, Roosevelt told reporters she was leaving the public eye, but she never did. She served as chair of the United Nations’ Human Right Commission, and in that role forged consensus among disagreeing delegates to produce the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I experienced first-hand Roosevelt’s powers of persuasion in her quest for equal rights. I was serving in the Kennedy Administration as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission when she called me about the Reverend Robert L. T. Smith, a black candidate for Congress in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi. Smith was being denied the opportunity to buy television time on local station WLBT solely because of his race. We were able to help, and Smith became the first black candidate for Congress ever to buy commercials or appear on TV in Mississippi. Myrlie Evers, whose husband Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson a year later, said that seeing Smith on television “was like the lifting of a giant curtain. He was saying things that had never before been said by a Negro to whites in Mississippi.”
WLBT eventually lost its FCC license for its failure to serve the public interest. Roosevelt visited my FCC office, and my wife brought our three daughters, Nell, Martha, and Mary, to meet this great woman, who coaxed our three-year-old, Mary, to smile. Roosevelt died not long after her visit. When she died, Adlai Stevenson said, “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”
Pope John XXIII, elected to the papacy in 1958 at the age of 77, was expected to be a caretaker pope, but during his five-year term he transformed the Catholic Church for the modern age. He held passionate views on human dignity and equality. The Second Vatican Council, which he convened in 1962, changed the face of Catholicism to the world, to promote ecumenism and kindness.
As a young nuncio in France, the Pope had been instrumental in saving refugees, most of them Jews, from the Nazis. As pope, John XXIII put to rest the idea that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, apologizing for the Church’s “many centuries of blindness.” Later this year, John XXIII is on course to be canonized along with John Paul II. His work and his leadership also affected me personally. At an international conference in 1961, the president of Notre Dame, Father Theodore Hesburgh, and I served together as members of the American delegation. After I left government service, Father Ted (now 96, and coincidentally born the same week as President Kennedy), invited me to become the first Jewish trustee of Notre Dame. I still serve today as a life trustee, after almost 50 years.
Martin Luther King was a newly arrived 26-year-old pastor of a Montgomery, Alabama, Baptist church in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus. The 382-day bus boycott that followed propelled him to national attention. He became a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, went on to champion the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins that swept the South, to confront the infamous Bull Connor, and in 1963 to lead the March on Washington, at the time the largest protest ever assembled there. A year later King won the Nobel Peace Prize and saw President Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, sign into law the Civil Rights Act. Four years after that he would be shot dead in Memphis.
King made no claim to being perfect. Some years after his death, I was seated next to his widow at a small dinner in Chicago. I told Coretta Scott King that I was with President Kennedy at O’Hare Airport in the 1960 campaign when he called her to offer help while her husband was in jail. She smiled and told me that when her husband came home from prison, they sat down in the kitchen to talk and he told her that as a Southern Baptist with a long history of prejudice against Catholics, this would be the first time in his life that he would vote for a Catholic for president. Sadly, the civil-rights movement in our own country has never again had a leader so visionary, strong, and effective.