This week, we are coincidentally celebrating our traditional Thanksgiving holiday at the same time we are remembering two great leaders, President John F. Kennedy and his brother Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who gave us many reasons to be thankful a long time ago. How we wish we could relive the 1960’s “New Frontier” sometimes, when we witness the negativism and division we are experiencing today. It was so long ago, but those of us active in politics since our teens & 20’s can never forget the enthusiasm generated and the optimism we felt for three years, starting with the Kennedy campaign in 1960. We saw our candidate winning primary after primary, then the convention floor close battle and finally the razor-thin margin the morning after the Nov. 8th election, which gave us our youngest and first ever Catholic President.
The next few years were a much too short-lived experience of hope and happiness and faith in a better future. We were watching a world with many dangers and conflicts, which President Kennedy and his brother Bobby would try to handle, working with very dedicated and intelligent people around them: avoiding nuclear war, reaching for space, establishing the Peace Corps, fighting to achieve racial justice and enact progressive legislation to improve the lives of working families and lift the middle class. We remember all of this on Nov. 22nd each year, and mark Thanksgiving just one day later this year, being thankful we had that shinning period of positive leadership and unity, with the whole world respecting us, cheering on our dynamic and charismatic young President.
We also celebrate Robert Kennedy’s birthday each Nov. 20th, just two days earlier, remembering that he took up his brother’s fallen banner and ran one of the greatest campaigns for President in 1968, which also ended in tragedy and an enormous loss for our country. Chris Matthews talks about the unity Bobby brought among the poor and middle class of all backgrounds and colors in his new book, just out this past week. I was devastated as a 16-year old in high school hearing of our President’s assassination, and then five years later even more so by the loss of his younger brother on Election Night, June 5th, 1968. How could this happen, twice, to the two political leaders who were most effective at bringing us all together on common ground, making the world respect and follow us as a truly fair and progressive society?
I dropped out of politics at 20 when RFK was killed. I went to visit and stay with relatives we have in Puerto Rico in November of 1968, not voting when I had just turned 21 that late October. Incredibly, when I had my first chance to participate, I foolishly protested the bad choice we had, not thinking it would make any difference! I learned a very hard lesson and vowed never to do that again, always voting in every election from then on, making sure I got my entire family and circle of friends to register and vote, joining and rising to leadership roles in every political organization in which I could participate, becoming President of the NJ Young Democrats, President of the Nutley Democratic Club, Bloomfield Democratic Committee Chair, running and winning for Montclair Mayor & Twp. Council five times, and running in primaries for Essex County Freeholder twice, both winning and losing, but always coming close by campaigning like a Kennedy!
Those two brothers were my inspiration, my start, my model for good politics and better government. Never to be duplicated, but reflected in other subsequent heroes like California Gov. Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama. Together, JFK and RFK gave us the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Civil Rights bill, the Peace Corps, the Space program, the Consumers Bill of Rights, and stronger labor laws. The optimism and hope of that 1960’s period of 8 years of Kennedy leadership is always remembered by me and many others on these few days in November, just before we celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday together with family and friends. The “New Frontier” of that short but idealistic JFK administration did not die on that afternoon of November 22nd. Nor did RFK’s vision for a “Newer World” end in 1968. We continue to fight for their fulfillment today, and are thankful this holiday that we had that time with two great brothers providing positive, respected leadership for our great nation.
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