a reflection on the idea of America: The Power of Words to Move a Nation
An essay about the legacy of John F. Kennedy as leader.
The images haunt us still: that beautiful couple, smiling, ready to face a bright day so full of promise…the bright pink outfit and pillbox hat…the handsome, youthful visage, forever young…the images and the might-have-beens…a bright, shining, final moment….
You know where it will end, a dark recurring nightmare you want to wake up from before the shots.… If only they could hear you: “Don’t go there!”
The Kennedys with Gov. and Mrs. Connally leave Love Field
Fifty years ago, my mom gave me a beautiful, poster-sized calendar with portraits of all the presidents in small ovals arranged with Washington top center and all the others in order down to the most recent, on a regal blue background. John F. Kennedy, our 35th President, was located at center bottom. My hero, Abraham Lincoln, was placed at the center. I often stood before those faces, gazing upon each—among whom were some of our greatest leaders—pondering the meaning of the American presidency.
This week, I’m thinking on events surrounding the death of a president. I find it easy to give in to self-pitying nostalgia over the loss of John Kennedy and “Camelot.” One can make a case for linking that real loss with the remaining trauma of the 1960s. I want to focus on lessons from his White House tenure that we might learn; these get lost if we see only the glamour, the life cut short, the might-have-beens.
The lessons concern the nature of public service and the nature of presidential leadership. All seem to agree that Kennedy left certain unfinished tasks. But they also agree he could inspire and move our nation by his words as few have with a vision of what America is all about, the idea of America….
Had it not been for Dallas, we would be focused this week on the 150th anniversary of another vision, the one cast at Gettysburg, given November 19, 1863. That battle, unknown to Americans then, marked the midpoint of the war and the point after which the South would never again be in a position to win.
Lincoln gave us great words that day, great not because of their brevity (272), though their brevity enhanced them. The occasion, the ideas, the delivery, and the genuineness of the conviction and longing they represented gave them power to move men and women. They also confirm the image of our greatest president. He spoke briefly, and before many could appreciate their import, he was gone.
Lincoln famously (and modestly) underestimated his “poor power to add or detract” and the impact his few lines would carry: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” We have forgotten that nearly as many Americans died in that one battle as in all the Vietnam war. And few know the name of the featured speaker for the occasion, nor any of the thousands of words he uttered. Lincoln’s words continue to remind us who we are and claim to be.
Words spoken today aren’t taken to mean as much as they once were. We listen skeptically, at best, to our “leaders,” assuming their words are not so forthright as they are wont to have us believe. We watch them parry questions from news people, noting how adroitly they use words to skirt the answers.
There was a time in our land that, when the President spoke, we would listen carefully, because what he had to say was of importance to everyone in the entire United States. It was in our interest to know and consider what he said, because he was our leader looking out for our interests more than his own.
I was 15 when President and Mrs. Kennedy rode into Dallas. I have my own memories of that day, and I’ve spent much of this week pondering its significance. I mourn that many young people I work with see John F. Kennedy as simply another dead president. I hope that this week of remembrance may help them think otherwise and arouse their curiosity to probe the meaning of the presidential leadership he modeled. I hope the message they receive is more than one of national self-pity and fatalism.
Left: Bob Schieffaer hosting “Face the Nation.” Right: In Dallas
Watching one special, I was struck by Bob Schieffer’s words. The venerable CBS newsman was a young newspaper reporter in Dallas on that day. I heard him mention several times that America was never the same after November 22, 1963. Others echo that sentiment. I agree with that, both as historian and as an American who lived the turmoil and malaise of the later 60s. That is when the events in Dallas were given exclamation points by the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, by My Lai and Kent State. A couple years following John’s death, we began to learn about the affairs (which I didn’t believe at first), and by the time of Bobby’s death, my own sense of disillusion had set in: the optimism and can-do spirit conveyed by JFK turned to pessimism and “can’t-do.” His vision and the challenge he laid down by his rhetoric now seemed empty, confirmed by my draft invitation from LBJ to go to Vietnam.
I regained a sense of optimism after becoming a Christian in 1971, and time has given new perspective to the Kennedy years. I (hopefully) see more clearly some things that matter. In light of the revelations of his unfaithfulness, you might expect me as a Christian to condemn JFK. I don’t dismiss that cloud over his integrity and character. However, I have to pause and marvel at the graciousness of Jackie Kennedy who, after all, went into their marriage knowing this about him. It was she who created the Camelot myth, and she now lies buried alongside him at Arlington, their secrets resting there.
We are left to ponder John Kennedy’s inspiring words and how he used them to lead this nation. Were they those of a hypocrite? I’m convinced not. Though many were penned by another, we rightly remember them as Kennedy’s own. He spoke them. He knew what he wanted to say at the time and used them appropriately and judiciously as few others have. His words inspired us, gave us courage and hope. In saying them, he made them ours. He gave them to us, as others have, and they are now ours.
Nikita Khruschev and John Kennedy in Vienna
JFK’s words reflect the fact that he was a serious student of history. He had an understanding of its direction and its dangers. He often quoted Khruschev about the danger of nuclear war, in which “the living will envy the dead.” He traveled extensively as a young man (he had money, you know), and was fascinated by international relations and wrote his Harvard thesis which became a book, Why England Slept. Watching England sleep while Hitler built helped him when it came time to stand his ground (and to provide a compromise) when face to face with nuclear holocaust over Cuba. It also helped that he had just read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about how miscalculations led to World War I. Determined to avoid nuclear conflagration, he was able to negotiate a test ban treaty.
JFK was raised to honor the nobility of public service. One who enjoyed the blessing of God to gain riches had a responsibility to give back. John Kennedy lived that out (however imperfectly), as did many in the past century who were from wealthy families. We may envy their money, but we do better to emulate their service. Kennedy may have finagled his way into the Navy by his father’s influence, but he quitted himself well when the need arose to lead his men in battle.
This notion of public service gave meaning and legitimacy to his Inaugural words calling us to dedication and commitment: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It was behind his creation of the Peace Corps and its call to service, and in part behind his call to go to the moon by the end of the 60s. Americans responded.
Words are one of the simplest tools that a leader has at his disposal. He may not be a great orator, but presidents can enlist the aid of great speech writers. John Kennedy did. They wrote what he wanted to say, and he had a vision that was communicated clearly, memorably, and eloquently. Americans today might cringe at his Inaugural call to “pay any price, bear any burden” because we seem to have borne all the burdens of the world for the last 50 years. But there is no question those words were appropriate to their time—and no, I don’t know what he might have done in Vietnam.
Consider one speech he gave to the American people (he did not use that phrase as we often hear it today to close a speech). It was his “Report to the American People on Civil Rights,” June 11, 1963. The speech is 13 minutes, 41 seconds of some of the most compelling and morally right words you will ever hear. You will note that the final couple of minutes are different: the camera pulled away, as though expecting him to finish. Instead, he continued on, never once looking at his prepared statement. He was, as one said, “winging it” during one of the most significant speeches he ever made.
Watch it. It will give you some idea of the moral authority he carried when he spoke to us. He spoke it knowing the stiff opposition he was facing in the South at that time, and his bill indeed stalled in Congress at the time of his death. President Johnson (of Texas) used the memory of JFK to get it passed.
Here is the link from the Kennedy Library: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/LH8F_0Mzv0e6Ro1yEm74Ng.aspx
Let me leave you with the last portion of Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg. John Kennedy may have been killed by an “insignificant man,” as some say. This has been so difficult to accept that many have insisted that there must have been a conspiracy. But John Kennedy died for our nation as much as the men at Gettysburg. Read these words with that in mind:
“… we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Adlai Stevenson once said: “Your representatives serve you right.” Let us then seek leaders who will be dedicated to the public service, not because they say it but because they’ve lived it. Let us find leaders who lead by setting a vision articulated in words that will move us to follow his example. They don’t have to copy the Kennedy style, but they do need to copy the substance. This is the role of a leader.
(To those who expected this post to be about C.S. Lewis. There’s a tie-in here: Lewis died of liver failure on the very day John Kennedy was shot.)