There's not much left to be said about John Kennedy. I can't say I really knew him. But I did meet him a few times, and on the last occasion, he actually called me by name (good staff work, I'm sure).
There weren't many Maryland politicians who backed his presidential candidacy in those early primaries. The dominant Tawes-Hocker machine opposed him. One of his most enthusiastic supporters was Jerry Hoffberger, who owned both the National Brewing Company and the Baltimore Orioles. It was Hoffberger who asked me to mobilize Maryland's young people for Kennedy. So on the rare occasions Kennedy came to Maryland, I advanced the trip, greeted him at the airport and was part of the traveling contingent. After the election I had a few invitations to the White House, and while studying and working in Washington as an energetic bachelor, I spent a few pretty excessive evenings with White House staffers.
My kids, of course, never met him. But they knew him, mostly I suspect, by the political books, campaign buttons, posters and bumper stickers that occupied our bookshelves and shamelessly decorated our powder room that hosted all sorts of political paraphernalia; cartoons by Mike Lane and Richard Yardley sketching me with an hilarious abundance of hair, the framed photos of prominent public officials — my daughter with Hillary, my wife with Teddy Kennedy and my most memorable: a photo of me shaking hands with Kennedy at Friendship Airport with a policeman standing squarely between the two of us wondering what this kid was up to.
And then he was president.
And we no longer called ourselves just Democrats — we were Kennedy Democrats!
We loved his wit, his charm, his sense of humor, and his words — words with rhythm, balance and Churchillian inspiration. We dismissed his faults and forgave his indiscretions. We stuck with him through the Bay of Pigs. We held our breath during the Cuban missile crisis. We laughed when he poked fun at himself, the press and his adversaries. We applauded when he took on the steel industry. And we watched in awe at the crowds that greeted him and Jackie in Paris, Ireland, West Berlin…
And then he was dead.
Many think the impact of his presidency was based on his death. I always thought it was his living. It was the impact his brief presidency had on many of us who were ending college and just beginning adulthood not yet certain where we were heading — trying to balance our interest in politics with our equal interest in partying. His constant refrain that public service was a noble endeavor took hold. Thousands flocked to the Peace Corps, and others, consciously or not, chose to make some level of public service an important element of life. The torch may have been passed to his generation, but he clearly passed it to the next.
In Maryland alone, we can look to public officials like "young" Tommy D'Alesandro who would become mayor; his sister, Nancy Pelosi who would become speaker of the House; Steny Hoyer who would become president of the state Senate and majority leader of the House of Representatives; Joe Tydings, Paul Sarbanes, Ben Cardin, Barbara Mikulski — all United States Senators; Steve Sachs, Joe Curran — attorneys general; Judge Charlie Moylan — the list goes on, a full generation of some of the most remarkable public officials that our state has ever seen, a generation of political talent that may be difficult to replicate.
And it came about mostly because a young president urged us not to ask our country what it should do for us but to ask ourselves what we should do for our country.
Theodore G. Venetoulis is a publisher and a former Baltimore County executive.
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