Hoyer Remembers the Legacy of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy Before the 50th Anniversary of His Assassination

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Transcript: 

“I thank the Gentleman from Connecticut. Not only for the special order but for the speech he gave as we led into this special order about that wrenching day in November, the 22nd of November, 1963. Where he was, the memory he had. And I thank the Leader who has recalled so well what John Kennedy meant to our generation.

“In my view, every generation of Americans has had a figure to whom they looked for guidance, for inspiration. However, few generations have such a compelling figure as John Fitzgerald Kennedy was to my generation.

“John Kennedy was the first president for whom I voted. I turned 21 in 1960, and I had the opportunity to vote for him in November. It was a controversial vote for some who thought that a young Catholic, or frankly an old Catholic, should not be President of the United States. For, after all, they would have to answer to the Pope. John Kennedy made it clear that he would answer to the American people and to his conscience. And that is what he did.

“Mr. Speaker, all of us have memories, and I will refer to at least two. I was a student at the University of Maryland in 1959. It was the spring of 1959, and there was to be a convocation, as there was every spring, with a major speaker being invited to give an address. It was to be at Cole Field House, which was then the athletic field house for the University of Maryland. It still exists, but we now have another basketball center, called Comcast Center.

“Classes got out at 10:50 that morning, and I left class with no intention, frankly, of going to hear the speaker, and I went to walk up the hill leading both to the student union and to Cole Field House. I was going to go to the student union, have lunch, talk to my friends, and then resume classes at 1:00. But as I was walking up, a car went driving by relatively slowly – there was some traffic. And I saw a 1958 Pontiac convertible.

“Mr. Larson will recall, that was a cool car. And that caught my attention. But as I looked at the car, I then saw the person riding in that car. It was a warm day. Top was down. And I recognized the individual in that car as the speaker who was going to address us in the convocation, and I said, that's really neat. Now remember, I’m 19 years of age. I said, I’m going to go hear him speak. So I did go hear him speak. And he talked that day – as I’m sure he did hundreds of other days in thousands of campuses throughout not only this country but around the world before his death – he talked about young people getting involved in politics. Not necessarily running for office, but getting involved in the politics of their community. In making a difference in their community. In taking their talents. And, as Leader Pelosi has said, and as he enunciated in his inaugural address, bring their energy, faith and devotion to the endeavor of making their democracy and their country better.

“I listened to that speech. I walked out of the Cole Field House, and the next week I changed my major from a business major to political science major, decided I would go to law school and run for office. It was in many ways a ‘Damascus road’ experience for me, a life changing experience for me.

“And seven years after I heard Kennedy encourage young people, not just Steny Hoyer – he never knew who Steny Hoyer was – but encourage young people to get involved, seven years later, five months out of Georgetown Law School, I was honored by some of the people of Prince George’s County to be elected to the Maryland State Senate. After, of course, I heard him speak on the campus of the University of Maryland in 1959, I worked in his campaign – never saw him. Shook his hand once when he was at Richie Coliseum, coming out of the Coliseum.

“But I have heard two more inspirational speeches in my lifetime. One was, of course, the speech that is quoted so often, as Leader Pelosi said, the inaugural address – delivered on a very cold, snowy January day in 1961, in which he observed that ‘the torch has been passed to a new generation …born in this century,’ meaning the last, and saying that they had been tested by ‘a hard and bitter peace,’ but that that generation was proud of their ancient heritage and ‘unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which,’ he said, ‘we are committed today’ here and around the world.

“What a proud observation that was of America's role in the world. Then, and now a nation willing to expend its treasure and its commitment of life and liberty to the defense of both. Here and around the world. John Kennedy was an inspiration to my generation, but John Kennedy was an inspiration to all generations in America.

“John Kennedy called us to service. John Kennedy observed that, although the challenges in front of us were hard, that America could meet them, overcome them, and be a greater country. I would suggest to all of us that we need that same kind of inspiration today. America is faced with challenges today. America is faced with division today. This body is faced with division today. It is easy to forget, as we remember John Fitzgerald Kennedy, how close an election it was between Richard Nixon and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Less, I believe, as I recall, than 200,000 votes separated them after millions of votes were cast. John Kennedy was declared the President of the United States, and our nation remained divided. That was the generation of the Civil Rights Movement. That was the generation of Martin Luther King, of Rosa Parks, of so many other heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. And our colleague John Lewis, the ‘boy from Troy.’

“As we remember the assassination of John Kennedy, and in remembering that, like John Larson of Connecticut, I remember where I was.  I had just delivered some papers to the United States Senator from Maryland for whom I was working while going to Georgetown Law School. And John, I came out the door leading from the chamber and was walking down the steps, and a Capitol policeman said: ‘Did you hear?’ I said: ‘Did I hear what?’ ‘The President has been shot.’

“The President was my hero, and he had been shot. And, like almost every American, I walked down those steps in somewhat of a daze, walked over to the Russell Senate Office Building, and sat down – as almost every American was doing that very moment – and watched the television reporting on the status of our president. It did not take long for them to report that we had lost him. That he had died. That the shot fired had been fatal. I don't know how many people – I presume there are certainly some who have cried for ninety-six hours. I did that. America did that.

“America had lost some degree, perhaps, of its innocence. America had been rendered vulnerable. America had lost its hero. Edward Kennedy, the Senator, after Robert Kennedy was shot, spoke at his funeral, and he said: ‘my brother need not be idealized …in death beyond that which he was in life.’ But it is extraordinarily difficult not to idealize John Fitzgerald Kennedy as we remember him, as we remember the extraordinary trauma we experienced as he was killed.

“His inaugural address addressed not only the American people, but freedom-loving people throughout the world. People seeking opportunity. People seeking liberty. People seeking justice. And the world responded, and when he went to Berlin, those in Berlin, then behind the Iron Curtain, knew that they had a kindred soul in John Fitzgerald Kennedy. And when he said ‘ich bin ein Berliner,” they believed him. They believed he was committed to their freedom as much as he was committed to the freedom of those he served in America.

“John Kennedy made an extraordinary difference. His term was cut short by the assassin's bullet. The promise that was John Kennedy was not realized. But John Kennedy's impact on America, on young people, was profound. I remember, John, and I think you were here when we served with Jack Kemp, a Republican, who would repeatedly, in Committee and on this Floor, cite John Kennedy as an inspiration. So that his legacy has not only been in terms of what he did and what he said, but his legacy remains in those he inspired to serve. To those who repaired to the high ideals that he put before us, this Congress, this country, and the world.

“John Kennedy made a difference.  We remember him. We remember that he died tragically. But what it really has us remember is the contribution he made while he lived, however short that life was.

“And I thank the gentleman for allowing us to remember this day the loss we sustained on November 22, 1963.”