(Then-Senator John F. Kennedy, right, with John M. Bailey and Barbara Bailey Kennelly
at the Class of 1958 Commencement, photo from Trinity Archives)
“I would urge …each of you, regardless of your chosen occupation, consider entering the field of politics at some stage in your career….. Our political leaders must be drawn from the ranks of our most capable, dedicated citizens, regardless of sex…. This is a great institution of learning, Trinity College. Its establishment and continued functioning, like that of all great colleges and universities, has required considerable effort and expenditure. I cannot believe that all of this was undertaken merely to give the school’s graduates an economic advantage in the life struggle. …we stand in serious need of the fruits of your education. …I strongly urge the application of your talents to the public solution of great problems of our time…” (Senator John F. Kennedy, Commencement Address at Trinity College, June 2, 1958)
Long before President John Fitzgerald Kennedy became famous for challenging the nation to, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he challenged Trinity students to become politically engaged. We may think that the current political era is the first time ever that people have felt alienated from government and disgusted with politics. But across our nation’s history, each political era presented its own frustrations, scandals, setbacks and disappointments. Senator Kennedy’s message that day to Trinity’s Class of 1958 was not that they should aspire for fame or power or great reward for political engagement, but rather, that they had an obligation because of their great education to step up to the challenge of governance on behalf of society.
“It is not necessary that you be famous, that you effect radical changes in the government, or that you are acclaimed by the public for your efforts. It is not even necessary that you be successful. I ask only that you offer to the political arena, and to the critical problems of our society which are decided therein, the benefit of the talents which society has helped to develop in you. … The question now is … whether you are to give to the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education.” (Senator Kennedy, Trinity 1958 Commencement)
Perhaps it is not at all coincidental that some of Trinity’s most notable alumnae in politics heard Kennedy’s call to action and chose to devote themselves to the hard tasks of political life. Barbara Bailey Kennelly ’58, pictured above with her father John Bailey who became chairman of the Democratic National Committee when Kennedy became president, became Trinity’s first alumna in Congress, serving from 1982 to 1999. We know her today around campus as Professor Kennelly, teaching Political Science students the wonders of modern legislative and governmental processes. She remains a great model of political engagement, recently traveling with the State Department on a diplomatic mission to Sierra Leone.
Following Congresswoman Kennelly’s footsteps, Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi ’62 started her illustrious Congressional career in 1987, eventually rising to become the first woman ever to be Speaker of the House, and now Democratic Leader. When she was a Trinity student, she actively campaigned for Candidate John F. Kennedy in his presidential race in 1960 (see Nancy below, center right, holding the Kennedy photo with her classmate Ciel Lynett Haggerty ’62).
Over the years, numerous Trinity Women entered state and local politics, went to law school and became advocates and judges advancing civil rights and equal justice, served as staff to numerous political and advocacy organizations, and volunteered for civic causes across the spectrum of political commitment. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Green Partiers, Tea Partiers —- whatever the cause of political point of view, Trinity graduates are engaged and vocal about advancing the best possible service to our society.
This week as we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of that dreadful day when Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK, let’s not dwell too much on that sorrow of that moment, but rather, on the triumph of American democracy. Even in our darkest moments as a society — and those awful days in November 1963 were very dark and treacherous moments —- we have shown resilience, purpose and vision in coming together as a self-governing people to advance the common good.
In these days so full of acerbic political rhetoric and deeply entrenched ideologies that seem to stymie any rational governmental actions, let’s also remember JFK’s call to a higher vision of service, a sense of purposefulness that was not about clinging to one radical point of view, but rather, trying to do the best for all people in the nation. JFK was young and liberal, but he was no ideologue. Many politicians have tried to claim his mantle since then, but almost none have succeeded in bringing people together in the same way.
Perhaps this week all of our political leaders can contemplate what makes President Kennedy such an appealing figure even today, 50 years after his death. He brought a fresh new style of leadership and governance to Washington, enlightened but not arrogant, purposeful but not dictatorial, maintaining a sense of humor and grace even in the face of contentious political conditions. He had a real zest for being president, and a way of touching the people that won hearts and minds. We could use a healthy dose of such transcendent personal style right now, on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.