- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

It was a series of shots heard round the world. The bullets that struck down John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, also ended a certain innocence in the United States and brought tears not just at home but around the world.

Later, controversy would arise as to how many shots were fired that day in Big D, how many gunmen were involved and whether there was some vast conspiracy at work in the assassination of a young and vigorous president.

That day, and for many days that followed, however, it was universally accepted that a tragedy that was more than just American had transpired. The world mourned with us because it recognized a rare spirit had been snuffed out.

Look at the pictures and images from around the nation. There is a fascinating mixture of tear-smeared faces and faces filled with resolve. And Robert Kennedy — who was to be shot down himself 4 years later — at the side of the grieving widow. And an awfully young John Jr. saluting his father’s casket.

Americans living abroad were paid seemingly endless calls of consolation by their neighbors. Suddenly, we were reminded that Kennedy in his own time was more widely admired and respected overseas than at home.

Four decades and one year later, it is good to remember that and other details that give some context to that era. Before the slaying, Kennedy was far from universally admired in the United States. He was elected by a narrow margin in 1960 in a bitterly contested election over Richard Nixon — so bitter and so narrow Nixon rejected calls to contest the Illinois results. It was an act so fine that many consider it Nixon’s finest hour.

On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was in Dallas to try to mend a dangerous split among Texas Democrats as he geared up for another election that looked likely to be as bitter and as close as the one before. With the help of his vice president from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson, and a united Texas Democratic Party, he had great hopes of carrying that state once again.

The shot that killed Kennedy brought about that unity in Texas; it united the entire country in mourning.

There is a lesson for today in this.

Johnson took advantage of this spirit of unity to push through what he and the Democrats considered long-needed social and economic reforms.

But many Americans came to see as unnecessary and unwinnable the long war Johnson led the United States into in Vietnam. And the country again became deeply divided. Overseas, many U.S. allies became disillusioned with what they considered a betrayal of the best in America.

More parochially, Democrats have never really regained their footing since.

After September 11, 2001, the country was again united in a period of mourning. The bitterness of the 2000 election was set aside, and Americans rallied to President Bush. And the world again joined with us in that mourning. The scenes from Paris of French men and women weeping as they watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York come down in spiraling billows of smoke and flames were repeated around Europe and throughout the world.

Now in 2004, the United States has just gone through an election campaign that, if anything, was even more bitter than its predecessor. There is rarely an even, civil word in American political discourse. Nationally, political rhetoric has fallen to a level that would embarrass hungry candidates running for county probate judge in Alabama and greedy for the patronage and contracts the office controls. The country’s unity has been drained into the sands of Iraq.

Again, many of our allies recoil from us as they see much that they feel is un-American in our conduct of the conflict in Iraq as well as our waging of the wider war on terrorism overseas and meeting the fear of terrorism at home. There are even some in Europe now who want to abandon NATO in favor of a new alliance aimed at restraining the United States.

The challenge for U.S. leaders is to somehow show we are the same people that produced “the greatest generation,” with all the hope and generosity and courage — and national will — that Americans showed during World War II. But we must also remember that Americans are not the only people with these virtues. Love of country is not only an American attribute.

Stroube Smith is a copy editor for The Washington Times and a free-lance writer.

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