We often hear about the new president's "first 100 days." Writer Thurston Clarke published a history in 2013 not of the president’s first 100 days, but of his last 100 days. The president is John Kennedy and the book documents what JFK was doing day-by-day before the tragedy of Dallas. Clarke pulled together narratives from many sources and many cities. The reader feels a sense of dread as the days tick by and Nov. 22 approaches.
An intriguing aspect of this book is the initiatives Kennedy began that he wasn’t able to complete.
He ordered the removal of 1000 American advisors from Vietnam by December, making clear he saw the war as unwinnable and planning to remove all U.S. troops before the war escalated. He also made secret overtures to Fidel Castro in Cuba, promising better relations if Castro would cease exporting soldiers to other Latin American nations. JFK intended to seek an opening to China as well, many years before President Nixon’s historic trip. Kennedy pushed a tax cut bill that he believed would promote greater prosperity in the nation. He also took new interest in the plight of Soviet Jews and promised to do what he could to help them gain greater freedom.
And on a more personal note, the death of their newborn son, Patrick, brought the Kennedys to a new closeness in their marriage.
We can only imagine the “what ifs” had the assassination not taken place in November.
I’m convinced many of us are tormented with “what ifs” in our lives. “What if I’d gone to the doctor sooner?” or “What if I’d not driven that route that day?” or “What if I’d been morally stronger?”
Alas, the “what ifs” plague us, but there’s nothing we can do to alter the course of the past. No one of us, no matter how strong, is strong enough to pull back the hands of a clock.
This is why St. Paul’s word in Philippians 3 has always been one of my favorite texts in the season of New Year. “Forgetting those things which are before, I press toward the mark of the high calling of Christ,” he wrote (Phil. 3: 13-14).
We do learn from the past, to be sure, but Paul’s word is to forget the failings that discourage us, and to infuse our lives with a new and greater purpose.
The message of the Christian gospel is that there need not be any “has-beens” in God’s kingdom. He is the Lord of mercy who specializes in restoring his wayward people from their failures and dashed hopes. And he promises to be our partner in building a meaningful life of service to himself and others.