Our American Character

Published: September 29, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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Visiting the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston I was struck by the wisdom and relevance to today’s issues some of our 35th president’s words carry.

After announcing his candidacy for the presidency on January 2, 1960, in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Kennedy laid out the role of the president in his time.

“…the American presidency will demand more than ringing manifestoes issued from the rear of the battle.  It will demand that the president place himself in the very thick of the fight, that he care passionately about the fate of the people he leads, that he be willing to serve them, at the risk of incurring their momentary displeasure.

“Whatever the political affiliation of our next president, whatever his views may be on all the issues and problems that rush in upon us, he must above all be the chief executive in every sense of the word.  He must be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office… He must reopen channels of communication between the world of thought and the seat of power.”

From a commencement address at Yale University, June 11, 1962:

“The world of [John] Calhoun, the world of [William] Taft had its own hard problems and notable challenges. But its problems are not our problems. Their age is not our age. As every past generation has had to disenthrall itself from an inheritance of truisms and stereotypes, so in our own time we must move on from the reassuring repetition of stale phrases to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with reality.

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

But it was in 1946, when Kennedy announced himself a candidate for Congress from the 11th Congressional District in Massachusetts that he spoke about our American Character.

“It is well for us to consider our American character, for in peace, as in war, we will survive or fail according to its measure…

“Our American idealism finds itself faced by the old-world doctrine of power politics. It is meeting with successive rebuffs, and all this may result in a new and even more bitter disillusionment, in another ignominious retreat from our world destiny.

“But, if we remain faithful to the American tradition, our idealism will be a steadfast thing, a constant flame, a torch held aloft for the guidance of other nations.

“It will take great faith.

“Our idealism… is being severely tested… the American people had as their leader a man, Woodrow Wilson, whose idealism was the traditional idealism of America. To such a degree was this true that he was able to say, ‘Some people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American. America is the only idealistic nation in the world.’”

“Let us not blink the fact that the days which lie ahead of us are bitter ones.

“May God grant that, at some distant date, on this day, and on this platform, the orator may be able to say that these are still the great qualities of the American character and that they have prevailed.”


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