By Bill Wineke Special To Channel 3000

It's a little hard to imagine today, but a half-century ago President John F. Kennedy and Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater talked seriously about sharing a plane while they campaigned together for the presidency.

It never happened, of course. Kennedy, who was inaugurated president 50 years. ago this coming Thursday, was assassinated in 1963.

His death ushered in a terrible period in American history, one which saw the assassinations of Kennedy's brother, Robert, of civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr., and the attempted assassination of Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace.

The 1960s were not a gentler time in American history. And they were not a more civil time. Robert Welch and his John Birch Society were the equal of any right-wing kook of today. School children in Texas cheered when they learned that Kennedy had been shot.

Yet there was a sense, I think, that serious political leaders understood they were engaged in a common cause of making America a better place. They disagreed on the best way to do that ? but they understood their common bond.

And, despite all the horrors of the 1960s, the assassinations and bombings of churches, the ghastly toll of the Vietnam War, the race riots and the mind-numbing fear of nuclear annihilation, those politicians managed to redraw the map of America, to lead this country closer to what it ought to be.

When Kennedy took office in 1961, black people could not vote in much of the country, could not eat in many restaurants, could not stay in many hotels. Interracial marriage was illegal in much of the nation.

When Kennedy took office in 1961, there was no Medicare, no Medicaid. There was a huge cement building at Truax Field that housed a regional air defense command, protecting the Midwest, we believed, from nuclear attack from Russian bombers.

(As a side note: I used to go to cocktail parties at that air base. Looking back, it seems a bit shocking that the officers charged with that defense were often too drunk to walk. But, I digress.)

The point is that, despite all the difficulties and tragedies of that time, just 50 years ago, the nation's leaders, somehow, managed to form a more perfect union.

Today, we have another young president. The nation's first Roman Catholic president has been followed by the nation's first African-American president. Barack Obama, like John Kennedy, is a young, brilliant leader, a man blessed with a gift of stirring oratory and with a moderate temperament that allows him to move beyond the arrows of his enemies and the disappointment of his ?base.?

Each is, also, the father of young children, a fact that must influence them when they think of how their actions may influence the world those children will inherit.

The world, itself, hasn't changed all that much. The tragic events in Tucson last week demonstrate that political leaders and innocent bystanders are still at the mercy of deranged publicity seekers. We still face threats as a nation from those who would do us harm.

But, if the 1960s teach us anything it is that, despite the real fears and real tragedies of our society, we can ? and we do ? move on to realize the dream of America.