Exactly fifty years ago today, the word went forth that the torch had been passed to a new generation. On this cold January day in 1961, a newly sworn in 35th president of the United States called upon his fellow Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you; Ask what you can do for your country.”
But what remains truly remarkable about John F. Kennedy’s words is that they speak not of a climate of government welfare or expansion, as so many still accuse Democrats of encouraging. These lines foreshadowed the period of personal responsibility that Republicans attribute to the era of Ronald Reagan. They also were harbinger to the spirit of volunteerism and giving that have come to be seen as the best elements of a civilized society. And do they also not speak, in a lightly chastising way, to those so self-centered in their pursuits, as many in the world of finance are who continue to demand and receive astronomical bonuses even in the post-great recession period of record unemployment in America? Do they not serve as a reminder to Wall Street, and also Main Street, that there is something much larger in the scheme of things, something more enduring, like the fabric of national values and ideals, that needs to motivate and energize private lives?
Half a century ago, President Kennedy’s words were a call to a generation — what has been dubbed the greatest generation — who inherited the governance of a world it fought to keep free. Through groups like the Peace Corps, and in their entry to other forms of public service, Americans answered that call. The fire from this torch spread to other countries, too, like Canada, where a political phenomenon known as “Trudeaumania” swept a new kind of energetic politician into office in 1968. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was known as Canada’s JFK, and another astute Kennedy admirer in Keith Davey, a Canadian senator, helped to keep Prime Minister Trudeau in power. Mr. Davey passed away this week, just short of the half-century mark of the great speech that so inspired him, as he often reminded in the course of a friendship with this commentator that lasted several decades.
But the most remarkable aspect of these great words is that they remain a trumpet that rallies every succeeding generation, each of whom discovers on its own what the Kennedy generation and others have learned and taught again: that we are all ennobled when we follow a purpose greater than ourselves, when we seek to give rather than to take, and when we see the efforts and success of the institution of government in the great experiment called democracy tied inexorably to our contributions.