For anyone under fifty, recollection of the brief era of John Kennedy is dismissed as nostalgia at best and sentimentalism at worst. But for those of my generation it was much more. It was a time of optimism, possibility, and promise.
Thus, the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s election and the 47th anniversary of his death bring memories of a better time for those of us who were inspired to public service, the idea of a national community, and a nation on the move toward leadership and progress.
As to public service, the “ask not” generation was not challenged to a career in elective office. We were challenged to find some way to repay the nation and the society that had given us unique opportunities. How different that was from the every-man-for himself-and-devil-take-the hindmost attitude of those who get the most media attention now. But of course, in the early 60s we had no Murdoch, no Fox, no “reality” television, no self-promoting political figures eager to put in their time in office so that they can reap the lobbying rewards awash on K Street in Washington.
One does not expect Republican politicians to advocate public service, for their mantra is “the government is the problem.” Leave aside the fact they all seem eager to control it. But it is a cause for wonder that Presidents Clinton and Obama have not echoed the Kennedy challenge. The Clinton era did bring us AmericaCorps, a volunteer national service program based on City Year and initiatives introduced years earlier. But there has not been the kind of ringing call that so motivated my generation of young Americans.
With Ted Sorensen’s recent death, my generation lost its last link to that era. Whether it was intentional or accidental, the challenge to “ask what you can give to your country” derived from ancient Athens and the dawn of the republican ideal. For those who bequeathed the idea of self-government 2500 years ago had one central idea: to protect the rights provided by a democracy, citizens had a duty to participate in the public affairs of the republic.
This idea was central to the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders. They knew if the duty of participation faded and everyone looked out only for himself and herself the American Republic would not long survive. So, the memory of the Kennedy era is much more than mere nostalgia. It is at the core of who we are, who we proclaim ourselves to be, and what we believe our principles to be.