I came close to time transport today watching a video clip of John F. Kennedy’s remarkable Inauguration Speech, delivered on a frigid day in January — January 20, 1961. 50 years have passed since that day so full of hope, and promise for the future of our nation. Hard to believe! President Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric and vigorous call to leadership and service galvanized the world. His was the first inauguration speech I ever heard (albeit, I was 8 years old at the time, but already a political junkie), and to this day, I can soundly attest that it remains the best.
The perils of the cold war of which Kennedy spoke at his inauguration have faded, replaced by new terrors abroad and at home. Today, as I listened to that famous speech anew, I wondered what he would think of our national response to his great challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
So many patriotic citizens responded to this call over the years in magnificent ways. The men and women who have served in the armed forces have given so much. So many have accepted the challenges and burdens of public service at the federal, state and local levels. Still others have volunteered countless hours on behalf of the civic good.
Particularly poignant is the death of Sargent Shriver just yesterday, at age 95, brother-in-law of President Kennedy and the founder of the Peace Corps, created with President Kennedy’s inspiration and support. The Peace Corps might be President Kennedy’s most enduring legacy to the world. Many Trinity alumnae have joined the Peace Corps over the years, joining in the global struggle to conquer poverty and ignorance through service to others.
Even with these many great examples of service to our nation and ideals, I wonder if we can say that we have truly responded as well as possible to JFK’s call to serve our nation. We Americans have taken to endless arguments among ourselves over issues of power and control and personal rights. Such debate may well be healthy in the long run — surely, there’s some benefit to forcing members of Congress to read the U.S. Constitution! — but there’s a self-indulgence to the current discourse that seems utterly selfish and counterproductive to the real message of service to our nation and the world.
What can we really do for our country?
Let’s stop trying to get in the last word. Let’s concede the current arguments and step back to see where the world really needs our time and energy.
Let’s insist that our leaders at all levels refocus their rhetoric and passion on policies and programs that will truly strengthen this nation, and by extension, provide models of social progress for other nations to emulate.
Let’s demand that our leaders end the tendency to retrenchment on civil rights and human rights. Let’s restore this nation’s reputation and reality as a beacon of freedom and hope for people around the world.
Let’s use our collective wisdom to find solutions to the poverty and illiteracy that traps too many of our own neighbors in cycles of despair across generations. Let’s insist that the engine of government use its firepower for effective domestic purposes rather than burning up money and time and human lives in fruitless wars in already-deeply impoverished nations.
Let’s come together to figure out how to restore our national confidence in education, innovation and great intellectual achievement. Let’s end our dumbed-down rhetoric and shoot-em-up attitudes.
Let’s restore the reputation of the United States as a place of prosperity and peace, not meanness, vengeance and constant violent insecurity.
Let’s recapture the spirit that once was our hallmark, the American “can-do” attitude, the belief that we can work together to solve problems, rather than allowing our differences to fester into conflicts that only add to misery.
Let’s remember, reflect and find ways to act on the challenge of that voice from so long ago, stilled for nearly half a century, yet still fresh and young in our mind’s eye:
“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.”
Read: BBC explains why Kennedy’s Inaugural Speech was a success