That voice of his echoed phrases that were readymade for granite monuments. During his all too brief presidency, he asked us to seek justice because it lay at the heart of fairness. He implored us to make peace with our adversaries because, while our differences came to define us, our shared experiences were even more enduring. He challenged us to go the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard. He encouraged us to create an educational system that was second to none. He asked us to leave our earth better than we found it. He implored us not to let our fears hold us back from pursuing our hopes.
For John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, who would have reached the century mark on May 29, it was always about heightened possibilities and ascending aspirations. As he said in his most prodigious foreign policy speech in which he introduced the policy of detente with the Soviet Union: “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Unlike most leaders in our present age of self-absorption, Kennedy rarely used the pronoun “I” in his speeches. Instead, he would implore “us,” “we the people,” “my fellow citizens.” The commonality as Americans was a reminder that we were collectively involved in our ongoing experiment in representative democracy. In JFK’s world, every voice mattered. If you conduct a phrase search of Kennedy’s prose, “let us begin” and “let us continue” would be the two most common ones.
As a leader, Jack Kennedy believed that the limitations of one’s language represented the limitations of one’s world. Thus his prose soared, inspired, and dared others to dream. The author of three books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, Kennedy once stated, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”
Like other great orators, he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. Like Lincoln, JFK appealed to the better angels of our nature and beckoned us to employ the bookends of fairness and civility in order to alter perspective, and, when need be, instigate or alter public policy. In the final analysis, President John F. Kennedy’s words seem to appeal as much to future generations as it did to his own:
“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our most fundamental resource.”
“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
“We prefer world law, in the age of self-determination, to world war in the age of mass extermination.”
“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”
“In every time period in every place, immigrants to our nation have continually enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.”
“Today, we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. … It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color.”
“The supreme reality of our time is the vulnerability of Earth, which is under our care and loaned to us from one generation to the next.”
“The world is very different now, for man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty – and all forms of human life.”
“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear – but let us never fear to negotiate.”
“Let us call a truce to terror. Let us invoke the blessings of peace. And as we build an international capacity to keep the peace, let us join in dismantling the national capacity to wage war.”
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
“Every man can make a difference, and every man should try.”
” Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
For President Kennedy, the buck clearly stopped in the Oval Office, and it was his job to make “those hard decisions” that eluded others. “The margin is narrow,” he stated early on in his presidency, “but the responsibility is clear.” When he triumphed, it was because we accomplished it together as one. When Kennedy suffered a defeat, he took full responsibility for it.
A day after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, an unmitigated disaster that nearly unraveled his administration before it had even had a chance to get started, JFK met with the press to announce the bungled events that had occurred in Cuba over the previous 72 hours. With millions of Americans watching on television, the President stated unequivocally, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan…I am the responsible officer of the government….and the fault here lies entirely with me.” Immediately afterward, his approval rating rose to 61 percent in the Gallup Poll because JFK had the audacity to take sole blame for the crisis.
Of course, when logic and reason did not work, Jack Kennedy often used his celebrated wit to disarm both the press and his political opponents. At a press conference two years into his administration, Kennedy was asked by a reporter: “Mr. President, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution recently saying that you were pretty much a failure. What is your response, sir?”
“Well, I am sure it passed unanimously,” Kennedy quipped.
In 1963, when Congress continued to block important New Frontier legislation, a prominent journalist asked the President, “Sir, don’t you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with the Republican leaders in order to iron out your differences on the proposed federal budget?”
Kennedy replied, “I think those discussions would probably begin at a lower level.”
Later on, when Kennedy was asked how he became a war hero as a Purple Heart-decorated commander of a PT cruiser in World War II, he joked, “It was easy. They sunk my boat.” Like Winston Churchill, John Fitzgerald Kennedy realized the value in exploiting self-deprecating humor as a potent political windscreen. One of his favorite quotes came from Aubrey Menen, who once said famously: “There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.”
“Look forward,” John F. Kennedy once said, “for our land is bright and our time on this planet is all too brief.” As the nation’s thirty-fifth chief executive, he fervently believed in the germination theory of public policy; the seeds you plant today will be bear fruit in unexpected and totally unanticipated ways sometime down the road. In JFK’s celebrated inaugural address, he proclaimed, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
Unlike most leaders in present-day America, the future was much more important than the present in JFK’s lens. It was also the theme of his favorite anecdote, which he retold for the last time in his beloved Massachusetts just three weeks before he was assassinated: “When he was in his late seventies, the great French Marshall Lyautey asked his gardener to plant a tree in the backyard. ‘But, sir,’ replied the gardener, ‘it won’t reach maturity for a hundred years.’ ‘In that case,’ replied the Marshall, ‘plant it this afternoon.’”
As we pause at this time and celebrate his life and what he meant to us, President John F. Kennedy’s words, even more than his deeds, still light up the sky 54 years after his death. In the end, JFK’s prose continues to motivate, guide, and inspire countless Americans to think beyond themselves to give the best they have in order to make the world a better place. As his youngest brother, Ted once reminded us – the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.