In his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Today, the tea party faithful and a group of conservative elected officials just say, Ask not! Ask not what can be done for or by the government.
This type of negativity would be bothersome at any time. It is especially so in this year and week of remembering President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 2013.
Larry J. Sabato, founder and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, has written a recently released book, The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. In his book, Professor Sabato asserts that “…lasting power is accorded to only a handful of presidents, especially after their death. There is no doubt that John Kennedy is one of the few.”
He further asserts, “The source of this long lasting Kennedy influence is not hard to determine: It is public opinion. Americans had a positive view of JFK throughout his White House years, and the assassination solidified, elevated and made inviolable the power of his name.”
Sabato’s assertions are based upon “extensive polling and focus groups” conducted by the polling firm Hart Research Associates. That polling showed that the top accomplishments of the Kennedy presidency included:
- Standing up to the Soviet Union on the expansion of missiles into Cuba
- Proposing the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act
- Setting a goal of putting a man on the moon within 10 years
It also disclosed that the two favorite statements of the President that the survey respondents felt “our country would most benefit from today in focusing our approach to government and citizenship” are the quote at the beginning of this blog and the following quote:
“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
We were not part of the research. But we have our own opinion on why the Kennedy legacy is so strong. That is because his perspective was positive and progressive. He challenged us to be the best that we could be and to help others achieve their best. He summoned up our better instincts – to care for others, to work together, and to do what is right.
Those who proclaim, “Ask Not!” are interested in rights as well but not in the same ones that shape the Kennedy legacy. The rights that they elevate include: the right to be left alone; the right to repeal; and, the right to outrage.
In the run-up to the government shut down, Representative John Culberson (R-TX) said,“Today, the constitutional conservatives in the House are keeping their word to our constituents to stand true to our principles, to protect them from the most unpopular law ever passed in the history of our country – Obamcare – that intrudes on their privacy and our most sacred right as Americans to be left alone.”
We’re not certain what “constitutional conservatives” are. We are certain that the right to be left alone is not expressly stated in the Constitution. We are also certain that Justice Brandeis did use the “right to be left alone” phrase in his dissenting opinion in Olmsted v. U.S. (1928)- a privacy case – but did not call it our most sacred right.
There’s another thing about which we’ve become uncertain, however – and that is the purpose of Congress. The Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to enact legislation. Ever since we studied civics, American history and government many years ago, we’ve been under the impression that Congress was established and intended to legislate.
It seems we were wrong. Or, so House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) would have us believe. In an interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation in July of this year,Speaker Boehner said, “…we should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”
In today’s political world run amuck, turned inside-out and upside-down, it’s not just about repealing it’s also about repelling any possible and plausible position or policy that differs from one’s own. That’s the point that Michael Gerson makes in a recent column for theWashington Post in which he writes, “This is the way the modern ideological market often works. It is driven by the entrepreneurs of outrage, marketers of resentment, innovators in the on-time delivery of anger. Their market share does not need to be large to be influential. Several thousand calls to Congress can seem like a populist wave.”
Embracing the aforementioned rights denies JFK’s legacy and diminishes our democratic community and the common good. That brings us back to the defense and affirmation of that legacy.
Two of our favorite books on Kennedy are Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life and Chuck Fries and Irv Wilson’s “We’ll Never Be Young Again.” Both books were released in 2003 – the year of the 40th anniversary of his death.
Professor Dallek’s book provides an in-depth and scholarly look into Kennedy’s entire life. Media executives Fries and Wilson’s book focuses on Kennedy’s final days and people’s personal and emotional reactions and memories to his death. Both books are accurately titled.
Yet, Sabato’s new book provides substantial evidence that while John F. Kennedy’s life ended his work has lived on in words and deeds through each of his nine successors as president after his death. It also confirms that while we might never be young again, John F. Kennedy’s legacy is firmly imprinted on those who were young at the time of his passing, those who have been young in the interim, and those who are young today.
So, we close this remembrance – not by looking back, but by looking forward, with words borrowed from George Bernard Shaw and spoken at different times and in slightly different ways by each of the Kennedy brothers (John, Robert, and Ted), “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and ask why not?”
Yes, as we come to the end of this “Kennedy Half Century”, let us make the commitment to carry on his legacy, to assume our own responsibility for the future, and to ask why not. Why not keep America the land of dreamers and doers rather than deniers and defilers. Why not make America the can do nation as opposed to the can’t do nation. Why not bring us together instead of tearing us apart. Why not?