Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961.
I was barely five years old when President John F. Kennedy spoke these words in his inaugural address. I was not interested in politics at that age; I probably didn’t even know what politics were. However, these words were often quoted as I grew up in the 1960s.
Kennedy inherited an economy in recession from his Republican predecessor. Does this sound familiar? It certainly was not as dire as the economic woes we currently suffer, but that seems to make our current situation even more ironic. Imagine President Barack Obama making such a statement to this generation. We really don’t have to imagine this because we have had almost four years to see how we react to such things, haven’t we? In a time when we need to pull together the most, selfish concerns divide us.
At least some of our economic woes can be traced back to President Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economics where (in theory) tax policies favoring the wealthy (the captains of industry) would eventually benefit (trickle down to) the poor. In the short term, this successfully stimulated the economy during Reagan’s Administration. This political favor also allowed the captains of industry the freedom to engage in ill-devised practices that led to the economic collapse of 2008, at the end of George W. Bush’s Administration. It was then discovered that one percent of the American population held most of the nation’s wealth. Obviously, little was trickling down in the long term, but Republicans still hold dear their party’s economic platform created by their hero, Ronald Reagan.
People are dissatisfied with Obama’s progress on the economy because they want a quick fix. They ignore that this problem has been developing for thirty years or more, so it is not easily or quickly remedied. Congress has thwarted some of Obama’s attempts at recovery because some congressional leaders seem to think that the same economic policies that created the current problems are also the solution to those problems. Thinking that doing the same thing repeatedly will produce different results is insane. The prevailing attitude appears to be, “What can my country do for me?” It does not appear that Kennedy’s statement would be well received today.
Kennedy rallied this nation in the early sixties. By modern standards, he accomplished a phenomenal feat. He challenged this nation by speaking these words before a joint session of Congress:
First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961.
It was not a phenomenal feat that he challenged and inspired the nation; it is phenomenal (by modern standards) that he got Congress to agree to such an outrageous idea. We were behind the Soviet Union in space related accomplishments. Television was black and white, and we had no personal computers, cell phones, game stations, or satellite/cable reception. Children still played outdoors then, and they liked it. It was quite primitive back then! Despite all this, Congress supported President John F. Kennedy and his bold vision.
I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated. I had just arrived home from school and was walking through the living room when I heard those words come from the special bulletin on television, “The President is dead.” I ran to the kitchen to tell my mother and a visiting neighbor, but they didn’t believe me until they went to see for themselves. It was shocking and devastating. For three days there was nothing on any television channel other than tributes to, and the funeral of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Many comparisons were also drawn between Kennedy and Lincoln during this time. Nevertheless, Camelot appeared to be at an end, but not entirely.
The golden age of television was coming to a close, but Kennedy played a part in its development. The presidential debates between Kennedy and Nixon were the first to be televised. Kennedy also consented to an interview with Walter Cronkite which some claim led to the development of the half hour evening news. NASA launches were also televised.
I was barely six years old when I watched John Glenn launched into orbit on February 20, 1962. Glenn was not the first American into space, but he was the first American into orbit. I am certain that this was not the first experience that I had with television either, but it would be my first outstanding memory of TV. It was inspiring and awesome, and I was hooked. I spent the sixties learning all that I could about the space program and following every mission. It was so much more positive than other matters seen on the news during the sixties.
The Vietnam War was escalated once Lyndon Johnson took office. The evening news brought a lot of gruesome images from Vietnam into our homes. At times it seemed as if when they were not reporting on the war, they were reporting about war protests. There was also news concerning civil rights for blacks which included a fair amount of violence and eventually included the assassination of Martin Luther King. It didn’t seem long after that we heard Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Some younger people may watch a program about hippies on the History Channel, or listen to music from that era and think it must have been a great time to live in, but it was actually a dark and dismal time in our history, except for when news of the space program was aired.
News reports about the space program suggested hope to my young mind. Humankind was doing something positive and constructive in the midst of so much strife and violence. It was for this reason that Camelot did not completely end for me until July 20, 1969, when Armstrong and Aldrin first landed on the Moon. I believe that Kennedy’s leadership ability to inspire such a large group of diverse people to pull together and accomplish such a grand feat is at the core of the Camelot romanticism.
Johnson escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War. Nixon got us out of Vietnam, but he is the only president to resign from the office (and in disgrace.) Ford pardoned Nixon to heal the nation and maybe it was a wise move, but it is not the way the government treats most citizens. Carter gave away the Panama Canal. Reagan did restore the nation’s dignity, but his trickle [down economics] dried up long ago. George H.W. Bush wanted to create “a kinder and gentler nation,” but he had to go back to the Panama Canal to clean up the Noriega mess. Clinton had a cigar trick that led to his impeachment. George W. Bush simply provided critics and comics with an unprecedented amount of material. No, I cannot recall any inspiring leadership like that seen in the days of Camelot.
I am not trying to portray perfection in the Kennedy Administration. What I am trying to get you to look at is how only one leader in half a century recognized the need to inspire the people with a vision for the future. He essentially told his people to lift their weary heads and look up. He pointed to the Moon and said, “Let’s go there!” He essentially also said, “I know it will be a difficult task, but I confidence in my fellow Americans.” He employed some very fundamental leadership principals; inspire, challenge, and then encourage. How is it that all subsequent “leaders” seem unfamiliar with these basic principles?
President Barack Obama has shown potential. I like listening to him talk. He speaks like he has both feet firmly planted on the ground (in reality.) His speech is measured; he seems to like speaking simply, directly, and with the fewest words possible. The greatest detraction to his term as president thus far is the way he has played paddy cakes with some congressional leaders. He isn’t going to accomplish much as long as he plays the game their way. He has recently made some surprisingly bold moves in his re-election campaign that may indicate that he is fully stepping into his leadership role, though. He has spoken of his faith in the American people, but such encouragement seems dilute without an inspiring vision and an accompanying challenge. He could still reveal an inspiring vision and challenge if he keeps going the way he has recently.
Mitt Romney is playing it safe. The Republican Party platform is his crutch. He hopes that as long as he clings to that crutch, religious elements will overlook that he is a Mormon. This is not a man who seems likely to venture into the realms of the bold and innovative. He has his eye on the golden throne and he isn’t likely to take any chances in trying to attain his desire for power. I wouldn’t give him a snowballs chance in hell of winning this election, except that I hear all too often in news reports and in general conversation the equivalent of “what can my country do for me?”
It has been half a century since Camelot and the world has changed a lot. However, Camelot taught me to pay more attention to a person’s overall character than to the fine details of their talking points. If a political candidate tells you something you don’t want to hear, then they are probably being honest. Learn to enjoy life regardless of what is happening in the world because when the greatest problem is resolved, another will appear to fill the void. History provides abundant evidence of this.