“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
These words, so memorably said by the 35th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961, have long inspired me; they have driven me to pursue public service, as they did for many Americans who listened to their new President on that day and in years to come.
Just weeks after what would have been Kennedy’s 100th birthday, with the chaos of our nation’s contemporary political atmosphere, I think it is important now more than ever to reflect on Kennedy as a transformational political figure who inspired his nation to push itself to bigger and better heights.
Growing up, I always felt drawn to Kennedy. While presidents such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln received the lion’s share of attention in my early American history classes for their grand accomplishments, I was always struck by Kennedy. I was not alone in adoring the 35th President. For many supporters of his presidency, this appeal was grounded in his youth and energy, which signaled a change of direction for the U.S. at the turn of the 1960s. For others, it was his deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis that averted worldwide nuclear disaster and that earned him praise. But for me, it is his ability to remind Americans of our shared commitment to freedom and our capacity for greatness. Kennedy was relentlessly positive, and he embodied all that Americans have looked for in a leader — charisma, strength, and courage.
My favorite speech by Kennedy is his address at Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962, where he implores Americans to rally behind the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s space program as an essential part of America’s role as the world leader. Facing pressure from the Soviet Union, which years earlier had launched Sputnik into orbit and Yuri Gagarin into space, Kennedy challenges all Americans to literally shoot for the stars: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.”
With these words, Kennedy exemplified all that it meant to be the President of the United States of America. He inspired us to push ourselves past the status quo and to seek out the future, no matter the challenges that lay in our way.
In our current divided political environment, where politicians seem to be more likely to mudsling and impugn their opponents than inspire the American public, it is easy to see Kennedy’s lasting appeal. In the years following the fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was tragically assassinated, generations of Americans took Kennedy’s message to heart, fighting for civil rights, equality and a better future for all Americans.
Kennedy established a presidential philosophy centered on the New Frontier for America and all of the possibilities that the future held for the country. He signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps in 1961, exhibiting his commitment to service and the good that can come from it. He encouraged Americans to fight for and believe in the promise of a better world. Unfortunately, his assassination marked the beginning of the end of Americans’ trust in their political establishment, as the country lost an important symbol of national unity and perseverance.
After commemorating what would have been Kennedy’s 100th birthday, it is incredibly important for all Americans, but especially those serving in the highest levels of our government, to study Kennedy’s example and learn from him. Kennedy saw public service as an essential part of being an American; sadly, in the years following his assassination, many have lost touch with his ideals. Too often in our modern society our political leaders seek personal or political gain at the expense of genuine accomplishment for all Americans.
There is a reason that so many Americans frequently rate Kennedy as one of our greatest presidents, despite a lack of notable legislative achievements such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal or Ronald Reagan’s transformational Conservative Revolution. Kennedy was a great American president because he brought the country together with common purpose for the public good. Even if you did not agree with all of his policies, there is no question that as an American, you could be proud that Kennedy was your president. I hope that going forward, we can rediscover his lessons of his life — in particular, his commitments to service and national unity — to create a future that he would have been proud of.
Grant Olson is a junior in the College. Past as Prologue appears every other Wednesday.