The Torch Has Been Passed
0n the day before the inauguration of the thirty-fifth president of the United States, a fierce storm fell upon Washington, blanketing the capital with eight inches of snow, stranding ten thousand cars across the city, grounding planes, and slowing trains. Crews worked during the night cleaning the main roads, and by noon on January 20, 1961, a crowd of twenty thousand stood on the Capitol grounds in the twenty-two-degree cold, braced against the eighteen-mile-an-hour winds and looking up at the portico where the nation's leaders sat outside to witness the ritual of passage. One million other Americans began gathering along Pennsylvania Avenue to greet the new president as he traveled in a parade that would carry him to his new home in the White House.
The onlookers had bundled themselves up against the fierce cold wearing an eclectic collection of wool coats, snowsuits, fur hats, ski jackets, hiking boots, galoshes, mufflers, face masks, hoods, and scarves. Up on the podium, seventy-year-old Dwight Eisenhower, then the oldest president in American history, sat wrapped in a heavy topcoat and scarf. The other largely aging politicians and officials were equally protected against the cold, many of them in top hats or homburgs. In the row upon row of largely indistinguishable black and gray coats, hats, and pale faces, there was one tanned, radiantly healthy-looking man.
Forty-three-year-old John F. Kennedy was the youngest elected president in American history, and he stood there the personification of the nation's energy and ambition. The new president tended to speak quickly, but this noon he spoke with a careful, deliberate pace:
"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."
The audience listened closely, the words seemingly resonating so deeply that they did not even applaud until Kennedy had spoken nearly five minutes. He appeared to be a strong young leader for a difficult new age. Kennedy had many virtues to bring to his presidency. He had a political mind as sharp as that of any of the politicians who surrounded him, but he understood nuances and subtleties on a deeper level than did most of Washington's narrow men. This was a brilliant attribute, nurtured by his father's influence, cultivated at the Court of St. James's and in his extensive travels, honed in the House of Representatives, where he was as much an observer as a participant, and seasoned in the Senate, where he had to deal with a complex, contradictory world. He had a sense of history that was not an academic's abstract vision but a vivid sense of human character moving through time.
Kennedy's father had taught him that he could make history and write it in his own name. And so he was setting out on this day as if he had a massive mandate and his youth was an added virtue. He had always been a cautious leader, and he knew that the path ahead was fraught with dangers both known and unknown, but he set forth an uncharacteristically bold and daring message:
"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility -- I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."
Many who heard the new president's words thought of him as a hero. Kennedy was a philosopher of courage who had written a book on the subject. Although those listening did not know it, during his life Kennedy had struggled against physical disabilities that would have hobbled most men. He considered politics at its highest level an arena for heroism, a colosseum where a few good men performed noble acts whose merits were often only dimly perceived by the rancorous, fickle masses.
From The Kennedy Men by Laurence Leamer. Copyright Laurence Leamer 2001. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, William Morrow.
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