Understanding the legacy of John F. Kennedy

'Ask not . . .'
By EDITORIAL  |  January 19, 2011


January 20, 1961. On this day 50 years ago, John Fitzgerald Kennedy began his presidential odyssey. By the time it ended 1000 days later in blood and tears in Dallas, Kennedy had transformed himself from a son of Boston into a citizen of the world.

Kennedy began his White House tenure with a challenge, a call to serve: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Together with Martin Luther King's declaration, "I have a dream . . . ," not quite three years later, they remain the most memorable words spoken by an American public figure during the last half of the 20th century.

JFK's words, stark and simple, had a graceful nobility about them. They telegraphed a sense of mission, of larger purpose.

Implicit in Kennedy's inaugural address was a concept of civic virtue as old as the Roman Republic, as venerable as the Greek city-states: liberty and responsibility are inexorably intertwined. We are defined not by what we receive, but by what we give.

Put another way, the measure of national strength and vitality beats in the hearts of each and every citizen.

Kennedy's inaugural was — and still is — electrifying. JFK's example inspired countless individuals to seek electoral office.

Massachusetts's senior senator, Democrat John Forbes Kerry, was by chance christened with the same initials as the man who helped shape the measure of Kerry's own career.

Born half a nation away and in circumstances far different from those of Kennedy or Kerry, William Jefferson Clinton of Arkansas burned with an ambition sparked by the 35th president.

Kennedy's exacting spirit and style was contagious. By refraction, it infused many aspects of Kevin White's Boston mayoralty. And it is exemplified in the career of US Representative Barney Frank, who gained his first political experience as a young aide to White.

Nowhere, of course, was the "Ask not" ethos more apparent than in the Kennedy family itself, the most notable examples being John Kennedy's brothers. Robert, first JFK's attorney general, and then a senator from New York, who was himself tragically assassinated while seeking the presidency. And Edward, universally known as Ted, who by the time of his death 16 months ago, was hailed as one of the most distinguished talents in Senate history.

In terms of mass participation, the Peace Corps is the embodiment of Kennedy's call to action. Over 200,000 have served in 139 nations since the founding of the Corps in 1961. Sadly, Sargent Shriver, JFK's brother-in-law and the founding director of the Peace Corps, died just before the Phoenix went to press.

Similarly inspired projects such as City Year and Teach for America have institutionalized JFK's service ethic. Harder if not impossible to measure is the effect that Kennedy's inspiration has had on innumerable individuals who have toiled in their own way to further the public good.

But what of JFK's own contribution? What did he give back to his country?

Every president's record is mixed. In Kennedy's case, these questions seem especially provocative because his tenure was incomplete. Popular wisdom sometimes holds that Kennedy's promise was - understandably, perhaps — more potent than his performance. But this is a myth.

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