Commentary: Notes from the Past — November 22, 1963

Commentary: Notes from the Past — November 22, 1963

— It is now a few minutes before midnight on the day John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. I feel that I must record my feelings on this occasion because I believe that this most tragic act is a horrible example of a most disturbing attitude which has been growing in this Republic.

It is at a time such as this that I am truly aware of the complete inadequacy of words. My feelings at the time of the President's death are nearly indescribable. At first they were of disbelief. I was in Philadelphia at the time attending a meeting at the Widener building in the offices of the Federal Housing and Home Financing Agency. The first word came over the car radio as I headed toward the Pennsylvania Turnpike for the return trip to Harrisburg.

As the situation became more and more ominous and finally at the announcement of the President's death I felt as though I was consumed by utter frustration. After all, this was supposed to be a government of rational men, not of force or radicalism. Yet here, in a nation where we enjoy all the pleasures of a free society emotion had somehow become so twisted and warped that our head of state had been cut down as if we were an uncivilized, tyrannical mob.

Have we drifted so far from the ideals which have built this nation into the most desired spot on earth that we are not capable or fit to enjoy those freedoms for which so many have so much. A constitutional government must stand on the rational, and I emphasize rational, disagreement of men. It can not be founded on emotionalism. We have preached to the world that disagreements must and should be argued out and not shot out. Yet, here today our youngest President was shot and killed.

We must hope that this act was not only committed by but planned by a deranged mind. For if it was even remotely tied to any form of established internal political disagreement then this government will not withstand the responsibilities of free world leadership which it must bear.

I can't remember ever feeling so deeply a loss as that of President Kennedy today. Since I never had the honor of meeting him personally I do not believe that my feeling was primarily for him alone but rather for the way in which he died.

For sometime now I have been deeply concerned with the growing attitude of many in this land to run the government by emotional appeal to various pressure groups rather than by sound statesmanship. This, I firmly believe, can lead no where but to disaster and tragedy as we have witnessed today. Above all separate interests lays the American dream of a free people settling their differences by debate in the halls of legislature and not by violence. For too long each side of the political aisle has sought to further their own ends by making accommodations to what is commonly called political reality rather than by an honest appraisal of the national interest.

Perhaps the death of President Kennedy in such a barbaric manner will snap the leaders and the people of this nation back to true reality — the fact that if this dream and if this system of government dies under the heel of emotionalism then the only victor will not be Democrats or Republicans or internationalists or isolationists or labor or management or any particular race, but rather the winner will be anarchy, distrust, and totalitarianism.

Many did not agree with the political philosophy of President Kennedy in many respects. I was one of them. But the resort to violence in order to settle those disagreements is no way to preserve constitutional government.

President Kennedy, in most of his programs, displayed a dedication to ideals that has rarely been equalled on the world stage. He was not the most politically agile chief executive we have had. And, in many ways, I was disappointed in his administration. But, I believe, he did present to the world the image of a young and dedicated nation committed to the ideals of constitutional freedom.

Tonight I watched the unfolding of today's tragic events on television and heard the leaders of both parties ban together to support new President Lyndon B. Johnson. I only hope that this national approach will last.

It is not that we should abandon our political differences. But these differences should be fought out on the floors of our legislatures and not with overt violence. And the solutions to these differences should be reached by an honest and objective appraisal of the common good and not an accommodation to the strongest pressure groups.

The events of this tragic day have also impressed upon me the dire need to keep the office of the Presidency in the hands of those that adhere to the so-called middle of the political road and to remain constantly aware that the tactics often used to shape public opinion on given issues may be food for the unbalanced mind to dash the ideals of freedom on the rocks of emotionalism. To be sure, there is a very real and necessary place in our legislative halls for those of all political philosophies who seek to perpetuate constitutional government. But, the office of the chief executive cannot and must not become the launch pad of either political extreme.

Also the forces that are given the task of shaping political opinion must be acutely aware of the solemn trust they hold. One must always be prepared to reap the consequences of the seeds which are sown. All to often it is quite easy to become engrossed in personal success and fail to give proper perspective to higher and more far reaching ideals.

This is not to say that self interest must or will be denied in the performance of government. But, if that interest is truly intelligent and sincere it will operate in the context of enlightened self interest and not in the pure context of vested self interest. For if it does follow the latter path it shall be its own undoing.

Perhaps, and I truly pray for my family and the world's sake, that this horrible shooting of President Kennedy today was the act of a madman and not one of design and that subsequent developments will bear this out. Yet, no one in this nation can truly excuse him or her self from its occurrence. For as long as each of us does not act in the best interests of free government by our actions, thoughts, and words — whether it be on the local, state, national, or international level — then we are all contributing to the dismantling of this nation as surely as if we had pulled the trigger of the assassin's rifle which spoke out for anarchy today in Dallas. There is no acceptable excuse for apathy.

If President Kennedy's shocking murder can serve as a national shock to awaken us from this lack of political dedication and awareness then perhaps he will not have sacrificed his life in vain. It is a sad day, however, that we must sacrifice a dedicated statesman in order to become reawakened to the ideals which should never have slipped from us in the first place. We have the ballot and we have reason. There is no need for the rifle to express our political displeasure.

Partisanship expressed in the form of legislative debate and sound political application can and has given us one of the most well balanced governments in the world. If we lose this dream we have only to look to our selves.

All too often man views his own time as that singled out by history as the most trying and one which requires extreme methods overshadowing the rights of the individual. However, we have only to read history and reflect upon times past to discover that trials and anxiety have been equally dispersed throughout time and if we approach them not with unbridled emotion but with perspective, prudence, and true humility for our human limitations we will further the dream of constitutional freedom and the sanctity of the individual.

One point in history that I have used many times to reassure myself is during the struggle for American independence when fear and emotionalism were running quite high. One of our great patriots of that time, and a man noted for his emotional appeal, struck a lasting note for sanity in a most trying time. He was Patrick Henry and in one of oration he paraphrased Voltaire by stating, "I may not believe in what you say but I would give my life for your right to say it."

Those words were uttered not in a calm, rational, soothing time. They were uttered during a time of revolution. Are we no longer capable of such objectivity? Today this nation and the world lost a dedicated man. God grant us that he was not the last.

The writer resides in Alexandria.