Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, which was honored by citizens, family, politicians and talk show hosts. JFK’s speech, a call for Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” still resounds in politics today, in such endeavors as our handling of foreign policy and arms control. One area Kennedy expounded on in his 14-minute speech that politicians could do well to heed today is the handling of political discourse.
Honoring the Kennedy Inauguration’s 50th Anniversary
The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts hosted an event in honor of the late president. In attendance were members of the Kennedy family, President Obama and other politicians.
“We are the heirs to this president who showed us what’s possible,” said Obama. “Because of that vision, I can stand here tonight as president of the United States.”
John’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, is honoring the anniversary with the help of late night show host and comedian Jimmy Fallon. Their “Ask Not” campaign is intended to reconnect the younger generation with her father’s public service message.
JFK’s Inaugural Legacy
Even though John F. Kennedy was assassinated in his third year in office, programs and ideas he started 50 years ago still commence today. The Peace Corps was conceptualized in 1960 by then-Senator Kennedy and founded in 1961 when he became president. The organization still serves the cause of peace by sending thousands of volunteers into third-world countries. Volunteers help train those citizens, provide AIDS relief and promote a better understanding of Americans. As JFK noted in his speech:
“Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.”
JFK’s foreign policy and arms control successes are still foundations for international politics today. The Test Ban Treaty of 1963 was the first post-war major arms control agreement. It banned nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater. Those efforts continue today, as recent as the Dec. 22, 2010, ratification of the New START Treaty. This pact between Russia and the United States limits the amount of nuclear warheads each country may have to 1,550.
Lessons Still to be Learned from JFK’s Speech
Kennedy’s inauguration speech also called to fellow politicians in a time of major discord:
“United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do — for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.”
JFK did not believe that an election was a victory for the party, nor that politicians should try to stick it to the other side of the aisle. He promoted bipartisanship for the good of the country and policies — not the stagnation of infighting and uncooperativeness.
Yet, stagnation and incooperation are what today’s politics are mired down in, as Congress members struggle to pass their party’s agenda and repeal the other’s. They could do well to listen and heed Kennedy’s inaugural words and become a productive governing body.
There are much-hyped plans on the seating arrangements for President Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 25, 2011. Politicians will be crossing the aisle to sit with members of the opposite party. Hopefully, it is not just empty symbolism and they take that spirit of bipartisanship and work together in a way that would make John F. Kennedy Jr proud–for the betterment of our nation.