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.
You can purchase the book here.
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].”
We Need Pioneers
While it would be convenient to blame our problems on the partisan divide and the weaknesses of our elected officials, we must also demand more of ourselves as we move toward solving the issues of our generation. The frontiers of the twenty-first century require the same kind of energy and devotion that Kennedy elicited fifty years ago. In fact, as the challenges have increase in scope and complexity, the need for our collective commitment to citizenship has grown, too. Therefore, we must look inward to assess whether each of us is contributing what is expected of us, and we are challenged to think critically in terms of how we can make our communities better.
If we are to effectively meet the challenges of our time, we need to heed Kennedy’s message. Though the challenges are great, so are the opportunities, and we can use Kennedy’s brand of citizenship as an instructive tool in carving a path forward. To do so, we need individuals to accept responsibility and seek to determine in their own lives how they can best contribute to our progress. We need people to work together toward common goals in the new frontiers of our time, particularly when faced with adversity. In short, we need new pioneers who are willing to be good citizens—individuals who are willing to make a difference in the national quest to secure a better future for the next generation.
We have the ability to answer this call to action. Whether we do so will be reflected in the choices we make and the causes we champion—and the priorities we define in our public discourse. If we commit ourselves to these efforts, decades from now people will be talking about emulation our generation and the work that we will have done.
Such efforts, Kennedy reminded us, will not be easy. But that truth lies at the very essence of why we make them—because going beyond what is necessary in our individual lives is what makes us, as Americans, different. It is what separates the average American from individuals in other lands—it is the defining element of our citizenship. Indeed, we choose to do these things, as Kennedy said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because [they] serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
It is time to get to work and embody the virtues of citizenship that formed the basis of progress in the New Frontier—and which can do so again.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.
The Power of Citizenship by Scott D. Reich (BenBella Books; October 2013).