Editor's note: This column was co-authored by Scott Mauer.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a man of many complexities. He was the first and so far only Catholic president of the United States. He continues to be the youngest president to be voted into office (Teddy Roosevelt, a year younger, was sworn in after the assassination of President McKinley). He was a Democrat who took a hardline stance against the Soviet Union, and simplified tax brackets to help the working men and women of America. In his Inaugural Address, he used the word “freedom,”---a word embraced by conservatives----often.
He was everything America needed in the 1960s – and needs today. He had a refined attitude (rumors of extramarital shenanigans aside), he had intelligence, he had charm. And he had a great sense of American beliefs and American exceptionalism. These are sorely lacking in today’s Republican Party, if not American politics in general. JFK was courageous, proving it in World War II, and he saw America as courageous.
During his inauguration on January 20, 1961, Kennedy gave one of his most famous sayings during his short term: “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” The reason this short sentence is so prevalent in politics, and so memorable, is because it hit right in the heart of American pride. We are not a country, like the nations of Europe, where government takes care of us. The United States is not a nation of top-down power. We are not dependent people. We are free from government oversight and free as individuals. That is precisely the mindset that Kennedy believed, especially when tackling the Soviet Union’s aggression in Cuba.
He was also a president who recognized American ingenuity. As well as a nation of individual freedoms, we are additionally a nation of advancements in the world of science, medicine, and politics. No other line of Kennedy’s is more praiseworthy of this theme than when he spoke to Rice University in 1962. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” he said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will 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, and the others, too.” Though the moon landing itself did not occur in his lifetime – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in July of 1969 – Kennedy personified the hard-working, “can do” nature of America. He personified Manifest Destiny as it had never been seen before.
Kennedy was a president who both parties today look to for inspiration. Ronald Reagan quoted Kennedy often. He is arguably the last of the presidents to unite the increasingly divided platforms. Part of that, certainly, could be due to his assassination. Because of his tragic death by the hand of communist-sympathizing Lee Harvey Oswald, the American people have memorialized him as someone akin to Washington or Lincoln. But both liberals and conservatives, who are more split than ever, see him as a hero. That’s not to say everyone must agree with every one of Kennedy’s policies – even Reagan, after paying tribute to him in 1985, admitted that he didn’t vote for him – but we as Americans should see this man tackling a hurt nation still recovering from World War II, and wounded by problems with civil rights, with respect and dignity that he deserves.
“If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place to live,” he had said to the Harvard Alumni Association in 1956. Perhaps we need again a politician with class, with intelligence, and with a sense of American purpose to lead this country.