Fifty Years Later, Can JFK’s Spirit And Promise Be Recaptured?


Fifty years ago today this country lost the promise of a limitless future.

It wasn’t really limitless, of course.  As Einstein taught us, the only two things that are limitless (his term was “infinite”) are the universe and human stupidity.  But to people of a certain age, attitude and experience back in 1963, if felt limitless…and exhilarating!

President John F. Kennedy – “JFK” – wasn’t a great president.  No president can become “great” in less than three years on the job.  Even the few true “greats” (with the exception of Lincoln) needed at least two full terms.

And JFK had enough political failures (the Bay of Pigs fiasco), misadventures (his foray into Vietnam) and trepidations (his wariness on civil rights) to, arguably, disqualify him even from consideration as one of the “greats” – notwithstanding his deft/brilliant statesmanship in defusing the Cuban missile crisis that effectively pulled the whole world back from the brink of nuclear war.

But he had a gift for inspiration no subsequent president has been able to match…marked by an amazing combination of wit, charm, intelligence and style not seen in any politician since.

In just his inaugural address alone, he opened minds, galavanized wills and touched hearts in speaking of “[t]he torch [that] has been passed to a new generation of Americans” willing to “pay any price, bear any burden” to spark a fire of freedom, the glow from which could “truly light the world.”

But the exhortation in that inaugural address that defined JFK’s presidency and the public spiritedness it inspired were the immortal words:

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

On this 50th anniversary of his tragic assassination, we here in Park Ridge – not unlike all Americans – should ask ourselves why we have we not had leaders with JFK’s ability to inspire us toward pursuit of the common good rather than toward the pursuit of individual, private advantage?  Sadly, the answer probably lies less in the quality of our leaders than in the quality of those of us who elect them.

On a local level, until we once again think more about what we can do for our community than what our community can do for us – and what private advantages we can gain at others’ expense – we have no hope of recapturing the spirit, the optimism and the vision JFK inspired.

And until we can put aside all those foolish partisan, social, racial and other divisions and embrace the spirit of his admonition “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer,” government and politics on every level will remain mired in the unproductive, zero-sum games that have come to predominate.

We need more givers and contributors, less takers and users.  We need more focus on the common values and experiences that unite us rather than on the forces that divide us.  And we need to be idealists, but without illusions – as Kennedy once described himself.

JFK’s presidency embodied a spirit of unity and confidence that could nurture credible prospects of an ever-brightening future.  Whether that spirit can be recaptured 50 years later is an open question that many politicians and special interests already have answered: “No.”

But we owe a duty to ourselves and our posterity to try.

Robert J. Trizna

Editor and Publisher

To read or post comments, click on title.

7 comments so far

Nice post. I wasn’t born when JFK died, but I always thought that quote was special.

Why is it that you don’t hear Democrats quoting Kennedy? I think Reagan quoted him more than any Democrat president or presidential candidate.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the point of the post was to try to apply the JFK legacy to Park Ridge, where all local elections are non-partisan, we’re not going to get into any partisan “D” and “R” nonsense here.

We’re more concerned about the JFK legacy of seeking “the right answers,” irrespective of their source; and about service rather than selfishness.

“Why is it that you don’t hear Democrats quoting Kennedy?”

Right. And nice work in making a comment that goes directly against the spirit of this editorial. And people wonder why today’s political climate feels so hopelessly divisive.

Kennedy was right about the “right way” being more important than any partisan way. That’s why it is good that our local officials are not elected on a partisan basis, even if they identify with a particular party outside of local govenrment.

“Why is it that you don’t hear Democrats quoting Kennedy?”

6:19….aside from your point about the poster, he/she is just plain wrong. My god Obama references Kennedy all the time along with many many other democrats.

“”The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.” Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.”…..That is Obama quoting Kennedy in the State of the Union address.

6:29….try google. By the way, by todays standards Reagan would be a Democrat.

EDITOR’S NOTE: That’s BO quoting RFK, not JFK; and although they were brothers, they weren’t really interchangeable.

No, by today’s standards Reagan would still be a Republican – but so would JFK.

2:32, Dems don’t quote “ask not” because they don’t believe in it, just the opposite. Dog is right, JFK would be GOP today.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Let’s not get too smug, 12:02 AM. We don’t hear today’s GOP posing “ask not” to its 1% (or 5%, or 10%) constituency.

Now, let’s get back to applying JFK’s exhortations to local, non-partisan gov’t.

Love it, Pubby. I was SO tempted to comment in a partisan fashion but realized that, duh, your point was, let’s for once NOT. So I waited to see who’d wade in with his own bucket of muck. Not dissappointed, I’m sorry to say. Anyway, thanks for the eloquent post.

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