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A Sesquicentennial of Note and Remembering JFK

A Sesquicentennial of Note

Seven score and ten years ago, today, Abraham Lincoln brought forth at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a 272-word speech that many consider the best ever delivered by any political leader. As statesman Edward Everett, the principal speaker that day, would later tell the president, Lincoln had done more to capture the essence of the moment—the dedication of a national cemetery honoring those who had died in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War—in two minutes than Everett had done in two hours, the length of his own speech.

If "brevity is the soul of wit," Lincoln's speech stands as the 19th-century model for the twitter generation.

Contrary to popular myth, Lincoln had not haphazardly penned the speech on the back of an envelope while traveling by train to Gettysburg. He had labored over getting the speech right, but public reaction at the time was mixed, at best. One newspaper panned it as something so terrible and inappropriate that it should be forgotten immediately. (That paper recently issued a retraction of its editorial, 150 years removed from its condemnation.)

As an eighth-grader at Ramsey grammar school (that's what we called it—we had only one in those days, encompassing grades K-8), I memorized the Gettysburg Address, much to the delight of my teacher, Mrs. O'Reilly, who insisted that I recite it for Principal Eric S. Smith. You know you are getting old when schools are named after your former teacher (Mary Hubbard, first grade) and principal.

Later, as mayor of Ramsey, I used the occasion of my annual Memorial Day speech to once again recite Lincoln's famous lines for residents assembled at Veterans' Park to honor our war dead. It was the best speech I ever delivered.

Remembering JFK

This Friday, of course, we mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination—my generation's 9/11 moment, just as the attack on Pearl Harbor was the day remembered by everyone in my father's generation. The Record asked me to do an article about my perspective on the shocking events of November 22, 1963, which the paper published last Sunday. In case you missed it, here is a link: http://www.northjersey.com/news/opinions/jfk_muti_111713.html.

The television specials these past few weeks on Kennedy's life and the assassination have been quite good. It was mostly things we already knew about the man, but seeing all over again the president, his beautiful family, and his unfulfilled "promise" as a national leader brought home to me how much human history can change as a result of one random event.

If Kennedy had lived, would more than 50,000 Americans have been spared a grisly death in Viet Nam? The president had exercised restraint during the Cuban missile crisis, disregarding the warlike-advice of his generals. Would he have shown the same restraint in Southeast Asia? I guess we'll never know, but the "what-might-have-beens" are an intriguing field for speculation—not just with Kennedy's demise, but with Lincoln's assassination, with Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination, and with dozens of other "forks in the road" that have confronted the human race.
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