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.