January 20, 1961, I sat in my seventh grade homeroom class while the teacher rolled in a big, black & white television and announced that we would all be watching history today.
What I was unprepared for was how quiet and engaged everyone in class would be in watching John Fitzgerald Kennedy take the oath of office as the 35th President of the United States; then listen as he stood and delivered one of the most memorable inaugural speeches in American history.
Times were perilous. President Eisenhower severed relations with Communist Cuba, and everything was shrouded in a Cold War between the United States and Russia.
Nevertheless, on that cold, clear Friday in ‘61 everything stopped for a singular moment.
People paid attention. They were excited, and unified behind the words of a young president who offered “a peaceful revolution of hope… to convert our good words into good deeds…” And reminded us to “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”
Times are still perilous. Not from a Cold War between two countries, but a cold war of our own political making. Kennedy’s words may be fifty years old, but they remain just as urgent to all of us today as they were then.
In a clarity and inspiration that still seems unmatched, Kennedy spoke of collaboration.
“United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do–for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.”
He reminded us of individual responsibility…
“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”
… and a call to service…
“Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.”
… a call to a higher standard…
“…whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.”
Five decades later, his words speak to a current Congress…
“So let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”
… and the real job before them.
“…if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor… Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”
He speaks to us.
“…ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”
He speaks to the world.
“…ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Listening to Kennedy’s words in that classroom from the past was the first time I ever heard an inaugural speech. It was the first time I ever heard any speech, and although I never realized it at the time, what I came to understand – perhaps for the first time in my life – was a sense of something greater than myself; a sense that we’re all in this together and that it is only when we let go of the political badges, stop the incivility, unite and work for each other can we realize the best that Kennedy called us to be.
As we strive to live up to Kennedy’s sense of character, we not only become better citizens but a more moral and more purposeful country – an example to the world.
I invite you to watch and become inspired again. We need that inspiration, now more than ever.