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Remembering JFK, America's most fascinating might-have-been

Toward dawn the snow began to stop. Teams and trucks had been clearing it all night. The temporary grandstands along Pennsylvania Avenue were snow-dusted, and snow clung to the bare branches. At the White House the men braced themselves and looked ruefully at their top hats. A little before one o'clock the oath was administered.

''And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!''

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John F. Kennedy reviewed the parade with his young wife beside him. He was the youngest elected president.

A reporter who had covered his election campaign from New Hampshire to Oregon felt that Mr. Kennedy was someone new and different, the embodiment of the new generation of youth. In Oregon in May, he had completed seven straight victories. Reporters felt an intimacy, feltthey knew him. He flew in a chartered plane, made into an aerial office, with a dozen reporters along and hundreds at every stop. Any subject could be discussed. Would religion defeat him - remember Al Smith? He was terse in his answers. Maybe he had better meet Protestant leaders direct. He did, and as with his dramatic radio duels with Richard Nixon, he seemed to gain ground by it.

This was the breakthrough of the new generation, and yet the young man who symbolized the immigrant stock was actually a cosmopolitan intellectual. He was tough, of course, probably tougher than his brother Robert. He barely won the election; he received no big mandate. As a result many of his campaign promises had to be temporarily shelved.

He did not anticipate the civil rights explosion, but when it arrived, he accepted it and supported a legislative program of amelioration.

Economic problems promptly arose, and Kennedy accepted the idea of planned deficit spending. He encouraged a tax cut, even when the recession was ending, and it seemed to work.

He lacked a legislative landslide; he had no votes to spare in Congress. He inherited from President Eisenhower the plan to invade Cuba, and the ''Bay of Pigs'' proved a disaster. With remarkable resiliency he accepted blame and started his administration anew.

The nation followed him and his family avidly. His father was rich and had been ambassador to England. JFK brought a touch of heroism back from the Pacific war and his PT patrol boat. He graduated from Harvard and entered politics.

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Kennedy was president for about 1,000 days. Historians still dispute his success. He left behind a legend, a what-might-have-been dream; it still floats and mingles romantically amid the musty history of other politicians and presidents in Washington.

Time magazine described him as he came to office: ''a slender man with a boyish face, an uncontrollable shock of hair, a dazzling smile. In manner he is alert, incisive, speaking in short, terse sentences in a chowderish New England accent.'' As columnist Stewart Alsop wrote (Aug. 13, 1960), his mere presence ''communicates to a crowd an undercurrent of excitement.'' This was the man who had campaigned to ''get the country moving again.'' In public style Kennedy was eloquent but tempted to extravagance.

There were a series of crises in his brief incumbency. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco came the confrontation with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, when Moscow turned nuclear missiles over to Cuba. ''Take them out - or else!'' said Kennedy grimly. Khrushchev took them out. And Kennedy accompanied his victory with a minimum of gloating. In some ways it seemed that the two men had sympathy for each other; each was harassed by war hawks at home, yet they seemed to be trying for peace.

JFK took the advice of military strategist Liddell Hart: ''Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save his face.''

In a notable speech at American University under the June elms, he asked for deescalation of the cold war. Both sides, he said, were ''caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other , and new weapons beget counter weapons.'' Khrushchev called it ''the greatest speech by any American president since Roosevelt.''

JFK's greatest mistake may have been Vietnam, where he instituted the ultimately disastrous policy of sending in US troops. There were not many soldiers then, but the pattern was set.

Looking back 20 years after his assassination at Dallas, the nation still sighs. He is the most fascinating might-have-been in US history. (In the next election Lyndon Johnson gained the working majority Kennedy had lacked and passed many of JFK's social measures.) There was nothing quite like the family. There was a tune and a tear and lilt to it all that comes back after a generation. Jacqueline explained later they sometimes played a favorite song - about ''a spot . . . for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.''

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