The National Memo brings you an excerpt from The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation, by Scott D. Reich. On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, there is far more to remember about the young president than the slew of conspiracy theories surrounding his death. President Kennedy passed at the height of his career leaving questions of “what if” — what would he have been able to accomplish? Reich wants us to remember what made Kennedy such an admirable leader. His reliance on and appreciation for the citizenry is what helped get him elected, but his emphasis on citizenship — the act of participating is what made him a strong leader. In The Power of Citizenship, Reich focuses on the most well-remembered line from Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Amid the hyperpartisanship and distrust in politics, Reich aims to remind us of Kennedy’s doctrine and the importance of adhering to it.
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Channeling the Kennedy Spirit
Kennedy’s American certainly does not solve contemporary problems. In fact, it would seem that the New Frontier raises more questions than it answers; it highlights more problems than solutions. But by the nature of the questions it raises, citizens are asked to consider modifying certain assumptions that can guide a society toward progress. When candidate Kennedy told his fellow citizens that a Kennedy presidency would not be about what he intended to offer the American people but rather what he intended to ask of them, he implied that a changing of attitudes would be necessary to bring forth the changes in policy that were needed. One must accept the responsibilities of individual citizenship before he or she can fully weigh the advantage or necessity of a particular program or initiative, just as an articulation of political priorities required dedication to a certain set of fundamental societal values. Kennedy’s vision emphasized choices over challenges in ways aimed to evoke allegiance to a higher calling.
This is not to say that the Kennedy standard of service and sacrifice can be achieved at any time; it must fit the circumstances. But it suggests that a more basic truth must be universally accepted in order for national progress to be achieved—the notion that the virtues of civic obligation and public betterment must be embodied by each new generation looking to build on past greatness. Kennedy’s vision here remains useful.
In addressing the new frontiers of our time, it will be impossible for us to agree on the best approach for every concern. We will also differ on which issues should take precedence over others, and even perhaps who is best equipped to address them. What is important, though, is that we remind ourselves that despite the flaring of passions—despite our disagreements and the issues that highlight our differences—we will always be united by the common elements of our citizenship and the essence of service that Kennedy so eloquently expressed. As Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans; we are all [Democrats].”Click here for reuse options!
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