We live in a nation with many problems. We are beset by foreign enemies and torn apart by internal divisiveness. The spirit of partisanship which George Washington warned against so many years ago has become an unreasoning monster that destroys our ability to unite and function effectively as a nation. The names, the faces and the enemies may be different, but the challenges we face today are not so different from those we have faced at other vital turning points in our history.
One of those times of crisis came with the transition from World War II to the Cold War. In that era we were fortunate to have the leadership of John F. Kennedy – at least for a few years – to set the standard by which we would meet the challenges of that era and remind us that the fight for survival was meaningless without fighting just as hard for the freedom on which our nation was founded – not only for ourselves, but for the world.
Kennedy had all the advantages and the aptitudes of a privileged birth, but also an understanding of the basic needs that bind men together no matter what their station. A man who embraced and defended the basic values of America – not self-righteous moralizing or sanctimonious religiosity, but the basic values of the Republic as laid out by our founding fathers – the freedom of the individual, the value and quality of life and the importance of an equal opportunity to pursue prosperity. He understood Thomas Jefferson when he said “that government governs best that governs least,” and he sought to provide a government of quality of ideas and leadership rather than quantity of bureaucracy and spending.
Kennedy came to the White House at a young age, after a period of warfare and during a time of domestic conflict. He transcended the limitations of political partisanship which had blackened the previous decade and embraced ideas which were anathema to the majority of his own party and supported in many cases only by his opposition. He was a northerner in a southern party, an elitist in a populist party, a liberal in a conservative party and an internationalist in an isolationist party. Rather than being weakened by these contradictions, Kennedy drew strength from them and made his party and the nation better as a result.
Had he lived, we have every reason to believe he might have become a glorious failure, sucked too deep into war and presiding over a nation going through changes too rapid and severe for anyone to manage, with his own party likely to turn against him. But Kennedy didn’t live. His untimely death preserved his legacy untainted for us to look to as an example.
Today, on the 42nd anniversary of his death, in a time which is troublingly reminiscent of the early 1960s in many ways, it seems particularly appropriate to look to his legacy and the ideals he expressed so cogently in his First Inaugural Address. Here are some selections from that speech – arguably one of the greatest political speeches of all time. They seem particularly relevant to our current situation.
“Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
Kennedy had to remind the people of his time of many of the same things which we seem to be forgetting today. He clearly saw the threat that we face today with the Patriot Act and the growing influence of government in day to day life. He echoes Rousseau’s observation that “Man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains.” He also points out a key point we seem to have forgotten: that a commitment to freedom means a commitment to human rights, and that you can not have one without respecting and protecting the other.
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Kennedy was unequivocal. He understood that there is no price too high to pay for liberty, a message his own party seems to have completely forgotten in pursuit of political interests ahead of the common good.
“To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society can not help the many who are poor, it can not save the few who are rich.”
We’re not competing with communism anymore, but the problems Kennedy saw still remain and have even been compounded by years of neglect. Some of that neglect came from focusing on fighting Communism. In the distraction of that struggle, we allowed for the growth of new enemies among the people we should have been working to help, had we not abandonned Kennedy’s ideas in the years after his death.
“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
This idea of civility seems to have been lost in the last few decades, not only between nations, but within our own ranks. Maybe it’s time to start over again as Kennedy suggested and find common ground and begin to to relate to others on a civil basis, rather than purely out of self-interest or the bitterness of old quarrels.
“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.”
“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
Unfortunately, but I suppose inevitably, those same problems remain the main threats we must deal with today. The tyranny of terrorism and theocracy dominate too much of the globe. Poverty still rules Africa as it did in Kennedy’s time. AIDS is with all of us all the time as a constant reminder of the fragility of human life, and now we also face the threat of new diseases like the pandemic avian flu. And of course, war is ongoing, with new enemies and new objectives, but always with freedom hanging in the balance and, as in the past, with the supporters of freedom outnumbered and surrounded by those who would rather submit to tyranny than accept responsibility.
“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 will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
That first line is quoted so much that we often forget the rest of this closing section of the speech. Kennedy asked sacrifice and service not only of his fellow Americans, but also of all the citizens of the world. It was idealistic, but it was a fair demand to make, insisting that America stand as an example for the rest of the world to follow, championing liberty and fighting oppression.
In many ways our situation today is similar to what America faced when Kennedy was elected in 1960. We are discordant and confused and out of touch with our core values and principles. We face a huge and implacable enemy which seeks not only our destruction, but to enslave the world to a philosophy which is totally alien to the liberties on which our nation and our civilization are based. They will stop at nothing and spare no cost to bring us to our knees, yet our leaders spend their time padding bills with pork for their special interests, inflating scandals for political gain and trying to tear down everyone around them in mindless, competitive self-destruction.
Where is the John F. Kennedy for our times? Where can we find a leader who is above and apart from partisan politics, who remembers our basic principles as a nation, and will work to bring us together so that we can face the dangers of our time with the strength of unity? Is there any leader today who has the strength to do what is right even when it isn’t what is popular or what his party tells him to do?
Or has our political system wandered so far from its basic roots that it is no longer possible for someone like Kennedy to survive and reach a position of leadership? Have our campaigns and parties and primaries become a weeding-out system which guarantees that only the most venal and the most duplicitous can rise to the top? Would a leader of Kennedy’s caliber even want to soil himself by wading in the cesspool which is the politics of this new century?
On this anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, I’d like to suggest that we look back to him and his times and search desperately within ourselves and throughout the ranks of our fellow Americans for some survival of his spark and his belief in the founding principles of our nation. If we can not revive that spirit and once again make ourselves a people who are capable of producing and supporting leaders of strength and vision, we may well deserve to be doomed to the purgatory of mediocrity, fear and lost liberties we have constructed with our apathy and indifference. Without a leader with his kind of vision and a people willing to support that vision, I fear that we will not be able to meet the challenges of our times.