The electorate in 1960 had marched like sleepwalkers through eight years of the Eisenhower administration.
It was an era whose greatest products were the millions of truckloads of cement as the administration chose to build infrastructure with its national highway program.
It was a time when what was good for General Motors was good for America.
A majority of women seemed happy to work in their chromium kitchens, raise the children and be the motivating force behind the successful man. Later, women’s rights would become as vital as minority rights.
The economy was strong.
Missing were excitement, imagination and new domestic and international goals suitable for a growing superpower.
The time was right for a charismatic leader who would take the nation past the highways and blast its way to the moon.
Enter John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The son of the influential ambassador to England, he was dashing, wealthy, Harvard-educated and, for the first time ever, an avowed Catholic seeking the presidency.
He beamed with new ideas and seemed to radiate energy from some hidden power source. Later, we were to discover he actually was quite sick and suffered from a debilitating disease.
Men found him inspiring and women found him irresistible.
He seemed to dominate the political sky in 1960 like some super bright comet streaming over America. Everyone sensed its flight would be a once in a lifetime phenomenon.
But more than change and a new order, he offered hope.
JFK would be known as the president who helped initiate the drive for civil rights and the enfranchisement of minorities. He would be the first, true education president who thought the national defense rested on an educated and skilled populace. In the 1960s, if you were smart enough, you would get support for college via government grants and loans, especially in science and technology. JFK, after all, was the president who set a deadline of a decade for Americans to walk on the moon.
It was not so much that JFK was innovative as that he was so vastly different from previous presidents. Human rights and democracy were to become hallmarks of his administration.
He was to create a Peace Corps of young Americans who would spend two years of their lives working in foreign countries preaching the benefits of democracy.
He also would be the one who would stare down Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev and get him to remove the missiles in Cuba.
First lady Jacqueline would transform the White House from a static official residence to a vibrant performance and arts center. It was OK to be an intellectual and hold progressive ideas.
In the end, despite some obvious human flaws and weaknesses, he was the hero of the young, our champion.
Page 2 of 2 - It was a soaring of our souls that made his assassination 50 years ago so incredibly tragic. Everyone can remember where he or she was when the news broke that the president had been shot in Dallas. I was in my college dormitory room struggling with my studies when a student pushed open my door and yelled, “The president has been shot!” We immediately turned on our radios and listened to the tragedy unfold. We speculated that the assassin must be a segregationist or a communist. We were to learn that it was a lone gunman who suffered from delusions he was acting out the communist agenda by killing the leader of the Western World.
Our hopes crashed and we wept. His time was too short; he was too young.
Light gave way to darkness. Camelot was no more.
The best and the brightest were leaderless now. The country entered an extended period of mourning.
We watched television continuously. Our hearts broke as we saw John-John salute his father’s coffin as it rolled by on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Everything stopped. Our colleges closed and we were sent home for an early Thanksgiving.
In the weeks and months to come, we managed to pick ourselves up and soldier on. But it would be years before we could look at the horizon and see a future so bright and dazzling and a world so full of hope.
Peter Costa is a columnist for GateHouse Media.