The Kennedy Challenge

Dr. Clifton W. Potter, UofL History Professor~

Next Tuesday is election day, perhaps one of the most important contests in our nation’s history. The ballots cast, the races won, and the races lost could determine the course of our nation’s history for at least the next generation, if not beyond that. Possibly not since 1932 has the United States faced such critical choices as it does next week. If you are a registered voter, do not fail to do your civic duty.

However, in this column I want to turn back the clock to another moment in time when the horizon was cloudless, and the future stretched before some of us like a road without curves, bumps, or barriers. It was the fall of 1960.

I was not eligible to vote because the legal age for casting a ballot was twenty-one, and I had celebrated my twentieth birthday in July, but I could campaign. I was a member of the Young Democrats Club, and I was active in supporting Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts for President, and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson for Vice-President. The young Republicans Club was actively supporting Vice-President Ricard M. Nixon for President and former Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. for Vice-President. Some voters were concerned about the fact that Kennedy was a Roman Catholic, but it quickly became a non-issue unlike the 1928 election in which Democrat Al Smith’s Catholic faith was a major factor in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency. The tone of the debates was civil. and the candidates appealed to the voters on real issues and real choices.

Late in October we received word that Senator Kennedy was going to make a brief campaign stop at the Roanoke airport, and the entire Young Democrats Club decided to caravan to the event. It was a perfect day, and we observed all the directives of the Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles, thus avoiding al the speed traps in Bedford County! When we arrived at the airport about half an hour before Kennedy’s arrival, and there was already a large crowd. We parked and joined the throng. Somehow it was discovered that the entire Young Democrats Club from Lynchburg College was there, and we soon found ourselves in the front of the group.

John Kennedy knew how to work a crowd. After he greeted the local dignitaries, he headed straight for us. Thus, I shook the hand of the next President of the United States. He had a grip like iron which left the imprint of my class ring on two of my fingers. He loved to sail, so his face and hands were tanned from the summer sun which made the white bandage across his knuckles even more obvious. Someone mentioned his injury, and he just laughed, and said it came with the job.

We stood and watched his plane disappear from view, and then we headed back to campus inspired to double our efforts to see him elected. On election day I worked outside the polls handing out sample ballots, and on inauguration day I gathered with my fellow students to hear President Kennedy challenge my generation to ask what we could do for country. Then it was November 22, 1963, and the dream ended. Nothing was ever the same again.