A month ago, the nation remembered the passing of President John F. Kennedy. I was born after Kennedy died, but the glow of his Presidency was still felt by my generation as I was growing up. In 1983, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, I saw a lot of newspaper articles and television specials on Kennedy’s presidency, and I grew to admire him. All these years later, we now know of John F. Kennedy’s flaws and his myth has been cut down to size. In spite of that, I still like President Kennedy. One of the things that I most admire about President Kennedy was his ability to inspire his fellow Americans to get involved in the affairs of this country so this country could live up to its highest values. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, Kennedy said in his inaugural address. Kennedy’s words stirred Americans to join the Peace Corps, march for civil rights, help the poor and serve in government.
This democratic republic that the Founding Fathers created will only work when its citizens are informed and involved in the affairs of the nation. At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a lady inquired of Benjamin Franklin as he was leaving Independence Hall, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
Franklin answered, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Howard Zinn had a similar insight on the necessity of people getting involved to enact necessary social change. In his book You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train, he wrote:
Consider the remarkable transformation, in just a few decades, in people’s consciousness of racism, in the bold presence of women demanding their rightful place, in a growing public awareness that homosexuals are not curiosities but sensate human beings, in the long-term growing skepticism about military interventions despite the brief surge of military madness during the Gulf War.
It is that long-term change that I think we must see if we are not to lose hope. Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.
There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment we will continue to see. We forget how often in this century we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.
…Ordinary people can be intimidated for a time, can be fooled for a time, but they have a down-deep common sense, and sooner or later they find a way to challenge the power that oppresses them.
People are not naturally violent or cruel or greedy, although they can be made so. Human beings everywhere want the same things: they are moved by the sight of abandoned children, homeless families, the casualties of war; they long for peace, for friendship and affection across lines of race and nationality.
Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zig-zag towards a more decent society.
We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.
These insights have had a profound influence on the faith I have in our democracy. If you care about some political cause, you can join a group, lobby your representative, join a protest march, participate in acts of civil disobedience. If you are not political, you can join a civic group, organize a food drive, volunteer in a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen, participate in your child’s school. A variety of ways are open for us to serve our country. I strongly believe that our American democracy works best when its citizens are instilled with a strong civic activism.
John F. Kennedy was able to inspire Americans to a strong civic activism through his charisma and his eloquence. Nowadays it’s fashionable for critics to say that Kennedy was all style and no substance. When you consider that JFK only had 2 years in office when he was killed, I always thought the criticism was unfair. When Kennedy was killed, he had pending in Congress the strongest civil rights bill since Reconstruction and a tax bill that, when enacted by Lyndon Johnson, spurred a sustained period of economic growth. He had just signed a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy set up the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. The big “What if?” that we need to ask about Kennedy but can never answer is whether Kennedy would’ve escalated the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. I don’t know if Kennedy would’ve passed as much meaningful legislation as Lyndon Johnson. I do think though that Kennedy’s ability to inspire Americans was a great benefit to the 1960s generation and to future Americans.
Message from President John F. Kennedy in the oval office about the recruitment of Peace Corps Volunteers in the early 1960s
John F. Kennedy – Address on Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
President John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address
President John F. Kennedy’s “Peace Speech”
President John F. Kennedy and the Alliance for Progress
President John F. Kennedy’s speech at Amherst College in Massachusetts, in honor of the late poet Robert Frost