They came while praying for Congresswoman Gifford’s recovery, when I heard that the woman who wrote the music to the very words Reform Jews say in those circumstances, herself died of the pneumonia which resulted from a too brief lifetime filled with illness. They came when watching others sing songs of praise to that woman, Debbie Friedman, and then a few days later, when watching fourth graders in Washington D.C. read the famous words spoken there by Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr, in the summer of 1963. And it is completely impossible to stay dry eyed as the nation listened again the words that first entered the unformed mind of an eight year old who has felt for every minute since then the need to fulfill the President’s command that he ask what he can do for his country.
It was the first civil event which remains in my memory bank. I saw it because school was cancelled by the northeastern snow storm that day and there was nothing else on television. Much of what President Kennedy said that day meant nothing to me, but some it hit home in an unformed mind where its words, repeated so many times since then, are fully etched today.
The speech itself has been quoted under this name so many times, it seems pointless to do so in any great length here. The NBC News coverage anchored, of course, by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley has been posted for some time and is well worth the hour plus it takes to watch.
That coverage could cause a tear or two to be shed because of how long gone that hopeful time seems to be. A recent book about the speech by Thurston Clarke is fascinating particularly in what it says about President Kennedy himself and how foreign his approach to the speech, much less the presidency itself, is to today's way of thinking (or of avoiding thought).
In putting the speech and its crafting in context, Clarke returns the original meaning the President intended when he told the world that we would
pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty
was not a call to arms ("though arms we need") but a foreshadow of the signature line of the speech:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country
These words reached the people inspired by them, including this Public Servant, in a much different world than we live in today. It was a world of limitless possibilities, as "President Barlet" described it more recently and not a place where every new idea is met with skepticism and doubt.
No, Senator Lieberman: President Kennedy would not be a Republican today. He would be grossly disappointed, as was his recently departed brother, Sen Edward M Kennedy, with a Congress converted from an instrument of policy into a perpetual campaign for re-election. He would not be happy to see a country avoid its most serious problems and would never sit still while we poured our country's wealth into the coffers of foreign dictators in possession of a fossil fuel we have decided is worth forfeiting our soul for, rather than standing for
the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought...--the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God....--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
President Kennedy, far more than his father, a member of the Roosevelt administration, believed in the New Deal and sought to expand it to what he called a New Frontier. He tried with all his power to convince Congress to enact some expanded health care at least for those who needed it most and for the end of the accepted roadblocks preventing some of our citizens to enjoy even the basic rights accorded to the majority of us.
And then he was murdered, and in some form or another, those bills were enacted by a Congress in shame. He died in an atmosphere of hate, as discussed here last week but, as also discussed last week, no literal connection could be made between his assassination and the noise of the day, just as none could be made of Congresswoman Gifford's would be assassin and the same drumbeat today.
All the words about the speech of fifty years past and the current President's beautiful address in Tuscon the other day present the antithesis of that darkness, which dominates our civic and economic lives today. And, yes, as President Kennedy said
civility is not a sign of weaknessbut the selfish rants of those uninterested in what they can do for their country, but how much money they can make from its citizens, and their shrill defenders have all but shattered the dreams we all had as President Kennedy told us to "begin."
The university where our current president spoke the other day, houses a political science professor emeritus who wrote a book a few years back called “Defining Danger: American Assassins and the New Domestic Terrorists.”
He sent this to the New York Times which published it earlier this week:
To the Editor:
Over a long academic career, I have researched and written about 21 American assassins, would-be assassins and domestic terrorists. It is pure nonsense to suggest, as some have, that the political environment has nothing to do with the actions of very disturbed individuals — as Jared L. Loughner appears to be — who plan and attack political figures in public venues.
James W. Clarke
Tucson, Jan. 14, 2011
And so we cry.