Last Thursday was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, and while the anniversary did not go unmentioned, it got less attention than I expected. I suspect that those of us who can remember that snowy day -- why do we schedule our great national outdoor ceremony for a day that is as likely as any to be the coldest of the year? -- are inclined to overestimate the hold that Kennedy has on Americans five decades after he took the oath of office.
Two events just before that anniversary fortify that conclusion and snap the links between us and President Kennedy. On Tuesday, Sargent Shriver died at age 95. This Kennedy in-law never attained elective office as the three Kennedy brothers and assorted offspring did, but he achieved something as important, or more so.
As the first director of the Peace Corps and working with his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver as head of Special Olympics, he created the cultures of two quintessentially American institutions, both with international reach.
Both embody a similar principle, that people -- seemingly ordinary people and people who are disabled -- can achieve more than others imagine. Peace Corps volunteers and Special Olympics athletes are assigned mundane tasks and end up with a genuine sense of accomplishment. This is "earned success," which my American Enterprise Institute colleague Arthur Brooks identifies as the key ingredient of happiness and personal fulfillment.
Both institutions are a combination of liberal generosity with conservative accountability. To have shaped just one of them successfully would be a major achievement. Shriver shaped two.
The other event de-linking us from the Kennedy years was the announcement on Wednesday by Sen. Joseph Lieberman that he would not run for re-election in 2012. Lieberman's political career began in his freshman year at Yale, the year during which John Kennedy was elected president and inaugurated. For his senior thesis, Lieberman wrote a biography, later expanded into a book, of John Bailey, the longtime Connecticut Democratic chairman and Kennedy's choice as Democratic National Committee chairman.
The book is admiring but not fawning, and at least occasionally critical -- a risky enterprise for a young man from a far-from-prominent family who was obviously eyeing a career in Connecticut Democratic politics. And was not waiting in line. In 1970, Lieberman challenged state Senate Democratic leader Edward Marcus in the primary and won, with the help of, among others, a Yale law student named Bill Clinton.