Wednesday, November 24, 2010
A Gift From Long Ago
By Bob Herbert
It was a half-century ago this month that John F. Kennedy won the presidency in a thrilling and heart-stoppingly close election against Richard Nixon. You’d probably be surprised at the number of Americans who are clueless about when Kennedy ran: “It was 1970, right?” “Wasn’t it in the ’40s, soon after the war?” Or whom he ran against: “Eisenhower?”
I’ve been surprised by the lack of media attention given to the golden anniversary of that pivotal campaign, one of the most celebrated of the entire post-World War II period. With Kennedy, the door to the great 1960s era opened a crack, and it would continue opening little by little until the Beatles flung it wide in 1964.
Kennedy’s great gift was his capacity to inspire. His message as he traveled the country was that Americans could do better, that great things were undeniably possible, that obstacles were challenges to be overcome with hard work and sacrifice.
I don’t think he would have known what to make of the America of today, where the messages coming from the smoldering ruins of public life are not just uninspiring, but demeaning: that we must hack away at the achievements of the past (Social Security, Medicare); that we cannot afford to rebuild the nation’s aging infrastructure or establish a first-class public school system for all children; that we cannot bring an end to debilitating warfare, or establish a new era of clean energy, or put millions of jobless and underemployed Americans back to work.
Kennedy declared that we would go to the moon. Chris Christie tells us that we are incapable of building a railroad tunnel beneath the Hudson River.
Whatever one thinks of the tragically short Kennedy administration, we’d do well to pay renewed attention to the lofty ideals and broad themes that Kennedy brought to the national stage. We’ve become so used to aiming low that mediocrity is seen as a step up. We need to be reminded of what is possible.
Kennedy accepted the Democratic nomination in a speech that he delivered before 80,000 people at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on July 15, 1960. It became known as the New Frontier speech. The candidate spoke of an old era ending and said that “the old ways will not do.” He spoke of “a slippage in our intellectual and moral strength.” He said:
“The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises; it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook. It holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”
What Kennedy hoped to foster was a renewed sense of national purpose in which shared values were reinforced in an atmosphere of heightened civic participation and mutual sacrifice. That was the way, he said, “to get this country moving again.”
His voice was in sync with the spirit of the times. Americans were fired with the idea that they could improve their circumstances, right wrongs and do good. The Interstate Highway System, an Eisenhower initiative, was under way. The civil rights movement was in flower. And soon Kennedy would literally be reaching for the moon.
Self-interest and the bottom line had not yet become the be-all and end-all.
Kennedy the cold warrior was also the president who created the Peace Corps, which Ted Sorensen, who died just last month (and whose daughter Juliet was a Peace Corps volunteer), described as the epitome of Kennedy’s call for service and sacrifice. The life of the young men and women who joined the Peace Corps would not be easy, Kennedy said, but it would be “rich and satisfying.” The volunteers would live and work among the indigenous people in developing countries, eating their food, speaking their language and helping them “meet their urgent needs for skilled manpower.”
The response to this call for service was both robust and long-lasting. The Peace Corps was one of the great successes of Kennedy’s administration.
While the myriad issues facing the U.S. have changed and changed again since Kennedy’s time, the importance of being guided by the highest principles and ideals has not. We are now in a period in which cynicism is running rampant, and selfishness and greed have virtually smothered all other values. Simple fairness is not a fit topic for political discussion and no one dares even mention the poor.
The public seems fearful and cowed. People unworthy of high office are arrogantly on the march.
You can say whatever you’d like about the Kennedy era and the ’60s in general, but there was great energy in the population then, and a willingness to reach beyond one’s self.
Kennedy spoke in his acceptance speech of a choice “between national greatness and national decline.” That choice was never so stark as right now. There is still time to listen to a voice from half a century ago.