Fifty years to the day from the awful assassination of John F. Kennedy, the U.S. is awash in a sea of nostalgia. Magazines and newspapers are crammed with retrospectives of his presidency. Television stations probe every aspect of his life, from his charisma and the Cuban missile crisis to his illnesses and mistresses. -- an entity that did not exist half a century ago -- is streaming live the original broadcasts that began with a Walter Cronkite bulletin, starting at 1:40 p.m. today.

Our nation's attention is riveted on Kennedy with an intensity we haven't felt since that awful weekend back in 1963. It seems so long ago. But it also feels like it happened yesterday. Watching photos and movies of the glamorous young president and his wife -- a couple who look as if they could step into our 2013 world, without changing a thing -- we are taken back to a time far different from today.

I was a JFK fan. My father took me to a rally in Bridgeport, two days before the 1960 election. I certainly don't remember his words -- I was only in second grade! -- but I do recall that, as young as I was, for the next three years I was energized by his passion, and motivated by the challenges he issued.

He urged Americans to take 50-mile hikes, put a man on the moon by 1970, be the strongest, fairest, most generous people on earth. I was not yet a teenager, but he touched me -- and those of my generation -- in a way we have never been able to forget.

The 50 years since President Kennedy's murder might have been 50 decades, we changed that much. We lost our idealism in Dallas and replaced it with cynicism. We lost a leader who boldly proclaimed, "I do not shrink from this responsibility -- I welcome it," and replaced him with politicians who are so irresponsible, they risk worldwide financial catastrophe just to score points with their political base.

We lost a little bit of ourselves -- our innocence, our vitality, our self-confidence -- 50 years ago, and that we have not been able to replace.

But I had forgotten how strongly JFK influenced me until a visit to Washington several years ago. It was a brilliant fall day -- warmer, but otherwise just like the one on which he was laid to rest -- and as the Metro from the airport neared Arlington National Cemetery, I impulsively got off.

A large, reverent crowd strolled up the path to the gravesite. I heard French, Italian and Japanese, but I sensed we all had similar thoughts.

The sight of the eternal flame -- burning brightly, in the center of a simple stone slab -- caused everyone to stop talking. I walked closer, and stood for several minutes at President Kennedy's final resting place. He was flanked by his infant son and stillborn daughter. Then I turned and walked down a few smalls steps.

There -- overlooking the lovely city of Washington, as white monuments to our country's heroes and ideals shone in the distance -- I read his eloquent words. Etched in stone for eternity, they describe a torch being passed to a new generation of Americans. A trumpet summons us to "bear the burden of a long twilight struggle against the common enemies of man -- tyranny, poverty, disease and war."

I read that "the energy, the faith and the determination which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it, and the glow from that candle can truly light the world."

Then I read his most famous words: "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America can do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Inspiring words indeed, from a frigid 1961 Inauguration Day. But the modern world quickly intruded. Beyond the peace and quiet of Arlington Cemetery, I returned to scenes of nasty sound bites, cynical posturing and cable TV wars.

I spend a lot of time at Staples High School in Westport. There are clubs for Young Democrats, Young Republicans and Libertarians. There are students who are deeply involved in important issues like environmentalism. Others -- for a variety of reasons, ranging from strong interest to college applications -- do community service in Westport and build toilets in Nicaragua.

None, however, seem inspired by politicians. Few are engaged in the political process.

We lost more than a president 50 years ago. We lost a man who touched our nation by challenging us, a man who had a feeling for words, ideas, history and humanity, and who expressed those feelings wonderfully. In Dallas, we lost our leader.

And we have been searching for one ever since.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer.

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