In this month of April, fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated; one of the magnificent voices of America was stilled. Just four months later Robert Francis Kennedy was assassinated; another of the great voices of America stilled.
When I graduated from the College of Idaho in 1958 a swarm of graduates swept out into a world of Doomsday. Nikita Khrushchev had warned us to get out of Germany, particularly Berlin, where he had already seen his handiwork, the Wall, do harm to the cause of freedom.
Communist China was bombing the islands off Formosa where Chaing Tsi Check set up government when he had been chased out of China by the communists. Iranians were revolting against the English puppet Shah and communist influences were stirring revolt in Cuba where Fidel Castro seemed to be coming to power (he would take over the next year). Also, a United States cargo plane was shot down on course from Turkey to Iran and the crew was held by Russia as hostages. Things could not have looked worse for us to avoid continual decades of war.
Suddenly, out of the great heritage state of Massachusetts, came a shooting star. A young man with charisma, a smile that warmed crowds, a boyish tuft of hair that had to be swept back out of his eyes at the slightest breeze, and a voice that stirred. In 1959 John Fitzgerald Kennedy came to the scene with his talk of a “new frontier” and of moving again to take America’s place at the head of the world’s governments. Flanked by his gentile wife, Jacqueline, and his children, John John and Caroline, he took the nation’s young people by storm.
He gave us hope, he gave us verve, he gave us the idea that we, the young people of the world should step forward and take up the challenges of the Cold War and turn them into victory for freedom. His lift to our spirits really did create our political Camelot. We took him to the presidency, even though by the ever-slightest margin. He took us a step or two even higher into hope when he said to us that we should “Ask not what [ our] country can do for [us], but what [we] can do for [our] country” He told the world that this new generation of Americans would uphold our revolutionary heritage that God gave us our rights and no man would take them:
“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to 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, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
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, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
What a thrill it was to listen to this young leader talk of our generation that would do new things, conquer new worlds, move to scientific heights that we could not even imagine. We were the new generation, and he laid forth our duty to keep moving ahead with the torch of our ancestors that had been passed to us.
America was on the move again. We walked with a quicker, bouncier step. We were the “new generation”, and we were going to show the world that America was back.
For three years we had political Camelot in the White House. At the peak of the Cold War Khrushchev sent ships loaded with armaments necessary for Castro to launch intercontinental missiles. President Kennedy, true to his inaugural commitment, ordered our fleet to prevent any Soviet ship from reaching Cuban shores with the armaments. For many long hours, we waited as a nation held its breath as we knew we were on the brink of war. I sensed a surge of pride mixed with the concern. Of course, as history shows, Khrushchev backed down and the Russian ships switched course. For the first time in many years, our President had backed down the Soviet Union.
President Kennedy went to Germany and at the wall he said “Ich bin ein Berliner” to roars from a tearful crowd and the praise of the free world. What a time to be an American.
And then, a solemn Walter Cronkite and an even more solemn Chet Huntley told us it was gone. Taken from us in a split second. Camelot gone in a flash. We would no more see John John crawling under the desk in the Oval Office or Caroline riding her pony Macaroni. We would no more hear the lilting voice, the charismatic smile, the jauntiness in the exchanges with the Press. No more JFK.
But we were still on his new frontier. We began the business of righting the wrong of segregation. Then, Dr. King was taken. As Robert Francis Kennedy began to sound the trumpets for youth he was taken from us as fast as were his brother and Dr. King. Camelot was finally ended. The high hopes of that class of ’58 now settled into a new non-resurgent funk.
Representative John Lewis of Georgia has said that “When these two young men were murdered, something died in a lot of us. We were robbed of part of our culture.” The robbery had begun in Dallas in November 1963.
I love this nation and the Constitution on and for which it stands. I tear up when the National Anthem is sung and the vocalist hits that last great clause. But I love it in a different way than I did when I heard that inaugural call to us to do for our country. I worry that the new generation to whom we will pass the torch of liberty will not know how much it means. They will not know how much it has meant to me, to my brothers who served in World War II, to my dad who served in World War I and to my friends who fought in Korea and Viet Nam. I worry that a generation not taught American history, as we were, will never have a shot at Camelot. Without it will they feel as fervently as we do?
I am encouraged by the fact that this Republic is the only one ever established based on God’s faith. Our Founders believed they were doing God’s work. And that has not changed. We still are the guiding light of liberty to the world. In that light, I hope the Institute’s work will be a plus to America for generations to come. It will prevent us from ever reaching a level of national government that usurps our individual liberty. That would be my dream, and that would be a Camelot for this nation.