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35 YEARS CAN'T SMUDGE KENNEDY'S LEGACY

He was the last black-and-white president. After him, American presidents appeared in color. His was the last black-and-white time. After him, Americans lived in shades of gray.

And yet now, as we approach the 35th anniversary of his death on a sunny November afternoon in Dallas, he appears as colorful as ever. Though the number among us who were alive in November 1963 is slowly shrinking, his assassination is still the most vividly remembered event in Americans' lifetimes -- more than World War II, more than the landing on the moon, more than the explosion of the Challenger, more than the fall of Richard Nixon or the fall of the Berlin War.

After all this time -- after all the revelations, all the revisionists -- the energy in John Fitzgerald Kennedy's voice still is strong, the pull of his idealism still is vigorous, his place in the nation's memory still is secure.

Indeed, now that the moon race is over, now that the Cold War is won, now that the civil strife is past, President Kennedy's place may be more secure than ever -- because, by a devilish twist of history, we are less secure than ever.

The enduring appeal of President Kennedy may tell us a little about his time, about the struggles in Vietnam and Laos and the Congo; about the frightening confrontation in Cuba; about the crusade to extend Americans' rights to all Americans; about the beginning of the cult of celebrity.

But the enduring value of our obsession with what is in the rear view mirror is that it tells us a lot about our time. It tells us that the elimination of the Soviet Union as a threat to our survival has not made for a safer world. It tells us that the end of legal barriers to social advancement has not by itself made our society more equal.

But most of all it tells us that, even in a time of manic materialism, we are hungry for idealism.

We remember Kennedy's successors for their frailties or their failings. We remember Richard Nixon for saying that he was not a crook. We remember Gerald Ford for declaring that the long national nightmare was over. We remember Ronald Reagan for saying that government wasn't the solution; it was the problem. We remember George Bush for vowing no new taxes. We remember Bill Clinton for saying he didn't have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. We remember them for things that are, essentially, negative.

We remember President Kennedy for the positive, for saying that no nation had ever been so ready to seize the burden and glory of freedom; that our job was to shape the world into what we wanted for ourselves and our children and for all men; that our mission was a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself; that the energy, the faith, the devotion we brought to that endeavor would light our country and all who served it; and that the glow from that fire could light the world.

We remember him for saying:

"For of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each of us, recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state, our success or failure, in whatever office we hold, we will be measured by the answers to four questions:

"First, were we truly men of courage? Second, were we truly men of judgment? Third, were we truly men of integrity? Finally, were we truly men of dedication?"

Those questions are with us every day, in large measure because Kennedy put them there.

We even remember President Kennedy for remarks that he never delivered, for a thought embedded in a speech he had intended to give at the Trade Mart minutes after the shots rang out in Dallas and the word spread, bulletlike, around the country and the world that the president was dead:

"We in this country, in this generation, are -- by destiny rather than choice -- the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of 'peace on earth, good will toward men.' That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength."

And we remember President Kennedy for saying that we celebrate the past to awaken the future. We have done that devoutly every Nov. 22. We'll do it for the 35th time on Sunday.

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