Memories of a Better Time

Author: Gary Hart

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.

11 Responses to “Memories of a Better Time”

  1. Geno Says:

    May be good for you, Gary, but I remember my little children practicing getting under their desks at school for protection, when a nuclear attack would come. I remember people building backyard shelters and stocking them to survive the coming nuclear attack. I remember brinksmanship with russia and Cuba, all the time Camelot was playing away in Washington DC. Glad you remember it in a better light.

  2. Sidney Brooks Says:

    I voted for Kennedy and disagree with your column. Kennedy was a lousy president. Read “Legacy of Ashes” his irresponsibility almost got us into a nuclear war. John McCone, a great American, saved this country from nuclear war. The great domestic president was Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy was all show and no substance.

  3. Forest Book Says:

    For me the bravery of these two men embody these words written by Percy Shelley:
    “…the temporary triumph of oppression, that secure earnest of its final and inevitable fall; the transient nature of ignorance, and error, and the eternity of genius and virtue.”

    Everyday I start my morning by walking past a picture of JFK. At some point during my week, sometimes a few times a week I will re-read, or listen to one his speeches, or the speeches of RFK. For the reasons you have set out Mr. Hart and for what the brothers teach me about our America.

    The Kennedy legacy was, or must remain: the eternal virtue of: Dignity. Not pride, but dignity.

    If our actions to “restore” our United States must be one thing; let that one thing be Dignity, and all its collateral, healthful effects. Pride is a selfish belief. Dignity far reaching.

  4. Pat Boice Says:

    Very interesting – and sad – commentary! Those of us “of a certain age” look back on those years with much nostalgia. I believe President Obama has the capability to inspire, and certainly the intelligence, but the public atmosphere now is so poisoned and caustic it seems to drown out a lot of his efforts. Please keep up your good work, Senator Hart, and see what you can do to have your website more accessible!

  5. Tom Gee Says:

    Well put, Senator. Like you, I lived through those same years and was imbued with the same sense of service. I am reading your memoir now and nostalgically thinking back over the times you chronicle. While you were handing out leaflets for JFK in New Haven, I was doing the same in the West Virginia primary as a college student in Ohio. From there, I too went to Washington, in my case to serve on the early staff of the Peace Corps, about to celebrate its 50th anniversary now. Then, it was on to OEO, which brought the nation Head Start, Job Corps, Upward Bound, and many other inspired programs. During all of the years since then, I have never been able to shed my commitment to service. To date, and I am still going strong, I have served over forty nonprofit organizations as a board member, consultant or staff member. To me, there is no other way. But, sad to say, that spirit is no longer pervasive, as it was back then for us. The last time I really saw it in full force was during your presidential campaigns. The Reagan revolution was well underway and eventually would crush the spirit. Even the wonderfully inspirational election of President Obama has not yet been able to resurrect it. I hope I live long enough to see it again.

  6. Debbie Lackowitz Says:

    Yes. I am of a ‘certain age’. Fifty seven to be exact. And you are SO right. I was just a ‘kid’. You Sir, are a bit older. But that does NOT mean that that ‘better time’ didn’t affect me. It most certainly did! While I never joined the Peace Corps, I DO realize that we are required to ‘give back’. Perhaps that’s why I identify myself as Liberal. When President Kennedy said ‘ask NOT what your country can do for YOU, but what YOU can do for your country’ it was a shining moment. And what an idea, as well. You know, I was kind of expecting something like that from President Obama on January 19, 2009. After the economic meltdown in 2008 we (some of us) actually were hoping for a call for us to join together and take action. Instead, a rather blah Inaugural Address. Not really memorable at all. I think that’s it actually. We were looking for inspiration, and it never happened. Perhaps that’s why Mr. Obama’s ‘base’ has abandoned him? But the next question becomes; are we actually the ones we were waiting for? If so, do we really need that ‘rallying cry’? We shouldn’t. But real leaders CAN get us motivated. Persuasion? Yeah. To finish up, it IS really up to US to get things done (if Washington doesn’t). WILL WE? Tune in later…..

  7. Gary Hart Says:

    To Geno it must be said that President Kennedy did not create the Cold War. He inherited it and his management of the Cuban missile crisis is uniformly considered a masterful demonstration of restrain, not brinkmanship. To Mr. Brooks, my argument was not whether Kennedy was a great president or not, but that he did inspire many young people of my generation into public service in a way that has not happened before or since. And Ms. Lackowitz, thanks for reminding me that I am “a bit older.”

  8. Sidney Brooks Says:

    To Gary Hart: Read pages 206 and 207 of “Legacy of Ashes”:

    For many year thereafter, the world (SB. and you still do) believed that only President Kennedy’s calm resolve and his brother’s steely commitment to a peaceful resolution had saved the nation from a nuclear war. McCone’s central role in the Cubam missile crisis was obscured for the rest of the twentieth century.

    “Yeah” said the president, “he’s a real bastard, that John McCone”.

    I would also argue that Kennedy’s legacy of fanatical anti-communism trapped Lyndon Johnson into the Viet Nam war. I believe that Lyndon Johnson was the greatest domestic president of the twentieth century. It was Kennedy’s “best and bightest” who inflicted the Viet Nam war on him and the nation. Were it for that war, Johnson would have been succeeded by Hubert Humphrey. We would not have had Nixon and Reagan, whose policies have gotten this country into today’s mess. Kennedy harmed this country badly.

  9. Tom Gee Says:

    Mr. Brooks, I have found that it is always careless to rely upon only one source for historical analysis. I would suggest you read the text of President Kennedy’s American University speech in June 1963, then search the Web for all analytic references to it and read them before you conclude that he was in any way “fanatical” in his world view.

  10. Bob Christensen Says:

    Listening to your show this morning with Senator Hart, I disagree with his view of the current administration. I am in my mid sixties and lived though the fifties and sixties and believe the very essance of America is in Danger of extinction. The Democrats are leading us into financial disaster, President Obama and congress commited the US to spend what we do not have.

    Fiscal responsibility is the foremost issue for any nation to survive and prosper.
    I for one cannot see how taking 50B out of Medicare and the looting of SS by the Johnson and following administrations can secure and better our future.

    Your non political shows are usually worth watching.

    As for the future health care, all government and privite people should have to pay into it, no exception fo religion or any other reason. If you do not pay something into it you should have to pay out of pocket just like every other country I visited in my life to date.

  11. DeLane Sims Says:

    I am always pleased to know what Mr. Hart thinks. I waited with enthusiasm to vote for him when he ran for President and would do the same again. My reason is reflected in this current piece, remembering that we do not really want to live in an Ayn Rand country or an Ayn Rand world.

    The amount of money generated in this country makes it the biggest economy in the world, including China yet we find ourselves with a great divide–Main Street where people attempt to live their lives by working hard and producing outcomes while trying to find a little leisure, a little fund, raise their kids and make their communities good places to live, yet their tax dollars don’t buy any kind of economic security. Then there’s Mean Street where the venal and powerful do their best to engineer society only for their own benefit. They accomplish this by rigging the system using a complicit Congress–self service in the guise of public service. Why? Because the American people allow it to happen.

    We have to understand that government is not designed to serve our ideologies or divide us using our prejudices. It is there to serve the needs of all citizens and no more. It’s proper functioning depends on our ability to filter the propaganda, misinformation, and tantalizing rhetoric and to recognize the truth when it hits us in the face. There is one truth that the Ayn Rand world fails to recognize–no man or woman is an island. That’s why we aren’t hunters and gatherers any more. The Kennedy era spoke to that and we should speak to it too.

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