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I was a little over two decades away from being born on Nov. 22, 1963, but I’ve always felt like President Kennedy was a part of my youth. His story was told through my parents.
In the early 1960s my mother, Maureen Orth, heeded JFK’s call for service and joined the Peace Corps. She would go to Colombia, start schools and change countless lives for the better. To this day she says it was the best and most important decision of her life. My father, Tim Russert, credited JFK for stimulating his interest in politics: For a working-class Irish-Catholic kid from South Buffalo, Kennedy’s ascension to the presidency told him that in America, anything was possible.
From a young age I was told of this man by my parents; his books lined our shelves, an old campaign poster (actually from my grandpa’s lawn in 1960) hung on a basement wall. I was always struck by his dapper image; the hair, the ties, the sense of coolness — he didn’t look like other presidents.
When I was around 9 years old my father interviewed Ross Perot in Dallas for “Meet the Press.” It was a summer weekend and I asked if I could go. Dad kindly said yes. After the interview, Dad told me we “were going to see some history and then ride some go-karts.” The first part of the sentence never registered, as “go-karts” to a nine year old boy quickly occupied all aspects of the imagination. After a short car ride, I saw that image of the cool president on a poster advertising parking spaces. I was perplexed as to why that picture, that I’d seen glorified on TV and in books would be in a parking lot. Dad said, “Luke, this is where President Kennedy was shot.” We were in Dealey Plaza. We spent the next hour walking around the book depository, seeing the infamous window and gaining firsthand knowledge of that dark day in American history.
That visit to Dallas sparked an interest in the Kennedys that I carry until this day. I’m forever impressed by the family's dignity in the face of loss. Public loss is a difficult thing. When sudden death befalls a family, it seems like the whole world stops; you’re filled with anger, sadness, disbelief. Those emotions become magnified when the public feels much the way you do.
When my father passed away, one of the first people to stop by our home was Ethel Kennedy. I’ll never forget seeing her walk through the door and giving me a hug. I immediately felt a sense of connection: Here was a woman who lost her husband, two sons, a nephew and, most famously, her brother-in-law, all before the eyes of the public. She told me to remember the happy times and be strong. It meant a lot; it inspired me and brought a much needed sense of relief — she was a living testament that there was a way forward.
As the remembrances roll in this week, I’m reminded of just how dignified the Kennedys are while the entire world wants a piece of their personal space. While the tributes can be sweet, even with time those can still be painful.