It was 50 years ago today that John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s presidency came to an abrupt end. It was the culmination of an era – an age of hopeful optimism, of unlimited promise, of romantic innocence and youth. All these years later, we can debate who was responsible for his death or how many bullets were fired, but instead, I believe we should commemorate this anniversary by celebrating the values he so eloquently advanced. We need them so desperately today.
JFK spoke of the need to be active in our communities – the obligations we all share as citizens of a great republic – the sense of destiny each generation of Americans must feel as we are summoned forth to answer the call to service. He challenged us to fulfill our potential, reminding us that no individual’s talents should go to waste, and that we all have something to contribute in the quest for national greatness. We belong to a community, he made clear, and our fate truly is tied to that of neighbor. When we lift one another up, we ensure that tomorrow’s world can be better.
It was all an infinite projection of hope – hope for our country, hope for the future, hope for the dreams of our children. It was predicated on a simple idea: with our citizenship comes certain responsibilities, and we have the power to choose to make a difference.
This spirit of connectivity – of the interrelatedness of our concern – is, sadly, largely absent from our contemporary public discourse. Instead of debating ideas and public policy, our leaders seek to destroy one another. In the political arena, we seem to define ourselves based on whom we supported in the last election – not by our common hopes and our shared desire to move forward so we can address great challenges together.
Fifty years later, Kennedy’s message remains relevant and enlightening. It is not merely that we want to be inspired again, to experience the vibrant idealism JFK outlined. It is more than that. It is that we want to be challenged again; we want to be asked to do something that furthers a great national purpose; we want to be part of collective advancement. To do so, we must re-dedicate ourselves to the precepts of citizenship he expressed, in which we look past party labels and other factors that divide us in favor of focusing on our community and the problems that confront us all.
In the wake of JFK’s death, this country knew nothing but darkness. The world, even the future, seemed to have been taken from us. But the eternal flame still flickers – not merely in Arlington National Cemetery, but in our hearts and minds – and we can still take inspiration from it. We can still be moved by his words and stirred by the spirit he aimed to foster. We can still embrace what he stood for. And if we do, out of the present darkness, we will again see light.
As Kennedy planned to say in Texas on that infamous November day:
“Let us not be petty when our cause is great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our nation’s future is at stake. Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our cause – united in our heritage of the past and our hopes for the future – and determined that this land we love shall lead all mankind into new frontiers of peace and abundance.”
Scott D. Reich is an attorney and the author of “The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation.” You can follow him on Twitter @ScottDReich, and you can read more at his website: www.scottdreich.com.
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