Ninth graders in Room 72 read the Introduction to John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. They learned about political risk taking and Kennedy’s admonition that politics is “the art of the possible” and as such, the outcomes are rarely the best-case scenario. In the book, Kennedy chronicled the works of some of America’s greatest legislators who illustrated the meaning of that notion. The list was an eclectic array of extraordinary men, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Sam Houston of Texas, Nebraska’s George Norris, Bob Taft of Ohio and others. Kennedy did not pick sides. He gave legislative courage and brilliance a bi-partisan tone, something we rarely see in today’s edition of democracy.
Kennedy later uplifted the nation with his soaring phrase contained in his short inaugural address on a cold January morning, “…Ask not what your country can do for you; but what you can do for your country….” How strange and alien that sounds in our twisted political world of today and how we would all like to hear that and act upon that in 2014. But, alas, partisan loyalty, personal greed and thinly-varnished hatred seem to be everywhere, polluting the national atmosphere and dramatically lowering the quality of life for all of us.
There are far too few legislators and politicians in general who do what is right and what is in the national interest. Most of our leaders at all levels of government act like legislative street walkers, pandering easy pleasure to any corporate “John” they can cuddle up to, partners rich enough to be worth the trouble of beguiling them. To them, the issue is not important; the national interest is of no consequence. All that seems to matter is their own continuation in office and the electoral prospects of their parties whose platforms have already been bought and sold to the highest bidder. It takes no courage to play their parts. Just trumpet what people want to hear in this increasingly polarized climate. Lower taxes and smaller government mean nothing but they sound good and win votes. It takes us on a road to nowhere; it educates no one; it provides no services; it doesn’t lower the debt. It just resonates with people who are angry and who think that democracy is great only when they win which, of course, isn’t democracy at all. They do what they can to discredit the government in the hope that the worse things get, the more seats they will win in the next election when they will inherit a whole lot of nothing. They are like the arsonist who torches a building and then criticizes the way the undermanned fire department tries to quell the blaze.
The sad thing is that in the end, we are all right and we are all wrong. It is always a good idea to criticize the government and to distrust some of its motives. That is healthy debate. But it is wrong to think that there is only one approach to government and legislation and that anyone who may disagree with your position is somehow less of an American. It is right to listen to debate on the internet and the broadcast media but it is wrong to let those voices speak for you or to accept their rhetoric without questioning the content or the motives that may have colored that content. Remember, their bottom-line loyalty is to the person or organization who signs their frequently substantial checks and the key to the amount on that check more often than not depends upon the level of national discord they can foment. It is right to be a fierce advocate for your position but it is wrong to assume that someone who passionately argues on behalf of an opposing position is less caring, less compassionate or less patriotic than you. They are merely exercising the same right you hold so dear. It is right to follow your religion and to seek solace and hope in it but it is wrong to suggest that it is the only religion and that any other religion is substandard or blasphemous. It is right to cherish marriage but it is wrong to deny to others their form of marriage because it somehow conflicts with your version of it. Some cry out for a return of their America and there is nothing wrong with that unless to do so would take away from others their right to an America they also cherish. There’s lots of room for all versions of America. It is that extraordinary ability to accommodate so many differences that makes this country so special and such a ray of hope for the world. Its survival is what is contained in the phrase, “…ask what you can do for your country”.
The men that Kennedy honored in his Profiles in Courage were able to rise above their political interests and personal security and act on behalf of the nation. That requires real courage. To simply do what will win votes even though you know it will not benefit the nation is another word also beginning with “c”. That word is “coward”. What will it be? Which word would you want on your “headstone”? What this nation needs are not leaders and legislators with wet fingers constantly held high to test the winds of often ill-informed public opinion. We need and should demand leaders who can accurately define our problems and who can ask each of us to sacrifice in an appropriate manner to confront and eradicate the ills that beset us. We need leaders who will always work toward finding ways to agree rather than those who vilify their opponents with an intensity that somehow frees them of even having to respectfully engage them in an honest and open debate. Those are real leaders and real Americans and the ones generations of our countrymen of all political views will gratefully honor in the years ahead.
Jack Kennedy was the first man I voted for in a Presidential election. He was smart, articulate and forward-looking. He wasn’t afraid to think big and to address his opponents in a collegial and informed way. But most of all, I liked his choice of words. Maybe a few would be a good way to close. In a speech at The American University in Washington on June 10, 1963, he said, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man…For in the final analysis, our most common basic link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.” John Fitzgerald Kennedy also had a surplus of courage.