Fifty years ago today three shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas. Two struck and killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy. They ended a Presidency that lasted only 1,000 days, but changed the world. Conspiracy theories will rage forever. What is more important though is not who fired the shots that killed JFK, but the man they killed and the legacy he left behind.
JFK was a flawed man and an imperfect President. He relied on his father's money and influence to reach the top. Among his many affairs were some that could have posed a security risk. The Bay of Pigs was an unmitigated disaster.
But he also achieved much. He led America through a time of enormous change and danger. He sent the National Guard in to enforce the desegregation of universities in the south. He introduced civil rights legislation that would change America forever and he put a man on the moon.
It is also not too much to say he saved the world from nuclear war. Had anyone else been President of the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis the outcome might have been very different.
Kennedy was much more than Camelot. He inspired a nation to follow him across what he called: "a New Frontier'' – the frontier of the 1960s, of unknown opportunities and perils, unfilled hopes and unfilled dreams. ... unsolved problems of peace and war, ignorance and prejudice, poverty and surplus."
Fifty years after his death he continues to inspire. To understand why, we need to understand what it was that drove him.
Kennedy believed in the importance of public service. He grew up in a life of privilege. He could have easily lived a life of leisure, but his Boston catholic father Joseph was determined that his children would do something meaningful with their lives. Every morning they had to read for an hour before they could go out and play. Joseph would pin newspaper stories of the day on the notice board in the kitchen and Jack and his brothers and sisters would have to debate the issues that night at the dinner table. It inspired a lifelong commitment for learning and public service.
Kennedy served his country. But more importantly he encouraged others to serve. He inspired a generation to ask what they could do for their country, how they could make the world a better place, and established the Peace Corps as the vehicle through which young Americans could serve.
He believed in the importance of courage. He wrote a book about it: Profiles in Courage. In 1961 in a speech to the Massachusetts State Legislature, he told them that when history judges each of us, the first question that will be asked is "were we truly men of courage?"
Kennedy was a man of courage. Most of his days were spent in intense physical pain, sick or bedridden. He set a record at school for the most days in the infirmary. He had everything from scarlet fever to diphtheria and malaria, and was eventually diagnosed with Addison's disease. He was administered the last rights three times. His younger brother Robert used to joke that if a mosquito bit him it would probably die.
Despite all of this, he joined the Navy when war broke out, commanded a PT Boat, and when his boat was cut in half by a Japanese Destroyer, he helped saved the lives of most of his crew. They swam four miles to a tiny island. Kennedy led them there and towed one of badly injured crew with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth. His actions earned him a Purple Heart, the only one ever awarded to a President.
It wasn't physical courage though that Kennedy most admired. It was moral courage. The courage to make decisions that you know are right when so many people are against you, when so much is at stake, when there is so much to lose.
Kennedy found this from within himself. On October 14, 1962 a US Air Force plane discovered Soviet missile bases under construction in San Christobal in western Cuba. Kennedy saw the photographic evidence the next morning. For the next 13 days the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.
Kennedy's military advisers urged him to launch an attack on Cuba. If he didn't America would be vulnerable to nuclear attack from missiles just off its coast. If he did he would have triggered a war that could have killed millions of people. Under extraordinary pressure, Kennedy found another option, and through his actions changed the course of history.
Eight months later, only five months before he was killed, Kennedy delivered one of the most important speeches of his life at the American University in Washington DC. There he talked about peace, and shaped by the abyss of nuclear war he had stared into, he announced the US would work with the Soviet Union to sign a comprehensive test ban treaty. So began the path that every President after Kennedy would follow to reduce the risk of nuclear war.
Fifty years after he was brutally struck down, JFK's story continues to inspire. It inspires us to do what we can in our own lives to make our community a better place, to have the courage to do what is needed, and what is right.
Jack Kennedy provides us with an example, but if we are to be our best selves we must find this within ourselves. As he so eloquently put it: "the stories of past courage... can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul".
Jason Clare MP
Shadow Minister for Communications and Member for Blaxland
**An amended version of this piece was published in the Sydney Morning Herald today.**