In Dallas he was prepared to decry, “voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality,” which he feared could, “handicap this country’s security.”
He planned to say that “We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.”
It was to have been a bold statement and a sharp warning, one that might have altered to contours of our national response to today’s violent, disassociated rhetoric — had he lived to deliver it.
We often search leaders’ last words for deeper meaning, a message to the ages. Although Thomas Jefferson’s last words were to his servants in the early-morning hours of July 4, 1826, and went unrecorded, and his last recorded words were to his physician, “No doctor, nothing more,” we instead focus on the fact that on the evening of July 3, Jefferson woke and asked with insistence, “Is it the Fourth?” It seems more appropriate that Jefferson’s last words ask about the independence movement he helped set in motion exactly 50 years earlier. Of course, the reason we often take poetic license with last words is that people very rarely know what their last words will be, especially when death arrives unexpectedly.
Regardless of whether the speaker knew that death was near or not, we ascribe to those final statements a weight that we might not otherwise. Perhaps it’s because we never got to hear those words delivered in life that we hear them more clearly in death.
The final chapter of my new book, “Undelivered,” which covers roughly 20 historically significant undelivered speeches, looks at the speeches that Pope Pius XI, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and John F. Kennedy were working on at the time they died.
Each has a powerful message to a future they wouldn’t live to see.
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As 1962 became 1963, President John F. Kennedy was enormously popular. Having successfully navigated the Cuban missile crisis, he began the year with a 70 percent approval rating. In March, he held a 67 percent to 27 percent polling advantage over the leading Republican challenger, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Kennedy was also a cultural phenomenon; roughly half of all Americans had seen or heard a Kennedy imitator. But, as the year progressed, Kennedy’s focus on civil rights began to take a toll. His popularity dipped overall, and nose-dived in the South.