It’s November 22, 2013 and I’m staring at an odd shaped black and white photograph, a photograph I haven’t looked at in years and wasn’t aware I still had. It’s four feet long and 10 inches high and says, “President John F. Kennedy reviews his guard of honor, the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort. Bragg, NC, October 12, 1961.” A long panorama, it depicts the whole 82nd in formation on the runway at Pope Field. In the foreground parallel to the viewing stand where the big brass are gathered is a white convertible — maybe a Chevrolet but I can’t really tell. I can see the helmets of two soldiers. Standing above them in a dark suit and white shirt is President John F. Kennedy.
That was the only time I ever saw him in person.
Our division had gone out to Pope Field the day before to practice getting in the right formation. Then we arrived again early the morning of his visit. All I remember is standing at attention as he zipped past standing and saluting. I remember him being in a jeep; he must have changed to it from the white car. From where I was in the midst of thousands of soldiers, he was probably in my sight for no more than five seconds.
During those two days, there was some bitching about the thousands of man-hours that it had taken to prepare for this quick Presidential moment but, for most of us, those hours of preparation in our spit shined combat boots and sharply creased fatigues were unforgettable, especially since it was our division that was honored.
So many of my generation were then inspired to do something they might not otherwise have done like going into the Peace Corps or public service. In my case I almost immediately volunteered for Special Forces training, leaving my cushy job as a medic in the 82nd.
You can pick at President Kennedy’s legislative record as some commentators are now doing or criticize his personal life, but the impact he had on millions and millions of Americans has been enormous. On this sad day, I imagine that there are thousands of others who are realizing that he inspired us to do things we wouldn’t have otherwise done. Most Americans would probably agree that he and Ronald Reagan were the only two truly inspirational Presidents in our lifetimes.
How much does inspiration matter today when we are so focused on what we think particular candidates will do for our own, personal issues? When so many of us, rich or poor, are receiving some form of government benefit and asking what our country can do for us rather than what we can do for it?
Thinking of this sad anniversary, I called David Gaon in California. We served on the Joint Budget Committee together during the 1975 and 1976 sessions. He called his legislative service “the most exciting time in my life” and his two years on the JBC “a priceless experience.” But speaking of the bitter politics of today, he said, “It’s a torment to be well informed.”
Nonetheless he was optimistic about the future and thinks that today’s younger generation will do things differently. Maybe they will find an inspirational leader who can lead them out of the ugliness of today’s politics; even better, maybe they will just do it on their own.
Morgan Smith served in the Colorado House from 1973 to1978. He can be reached at Morganfirstname.lastname@example.org.