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Defining Moments


RevDeb sent me a link to an article from 2003 about the death of President John F. Kennedy that contained a portion that I wanted to share with all of you today:

It was not the product of party or ideology; rather the reverse. For all his amused affection for his brawling fellow Democrats, Kennedy was a skeptical partisan at best. "Sometimes," he said more than once, "party loyalty demands too much." He was even more skeptical of ideology. Liberals, he said, "tend to underestimate the importance of winning"; conservatives too often "close their eyes to society's needs." Predictably, he was viewed with suspicion by both the left and the right. Liberals eschewed him for Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic National Convention; conservatives stampeded to Lyndon Johnson at the convention and to Richard Nixon in the general election. But Kennedy did something no politician had done at least since Theodore Roosevelt. He electrified much of a generation, many of whom had previously neither known nor cared about politics and government.

His famous call to "ask not what your country can do for you" is now so well known it's a cliche. Who remembers today how radical a departure that was from the lunch pail political rhetoric of the 1940s and '50s? Who had ever run for office before by asking us to give rather than take?

Politics in the 1950s — at least in image — was the province of greasy, balding fat men with wet cigars and wide ties. They were the ward heelers and aldermen and lodge brothers of a Ralph Kramden America, leavened out with the occasional plutocrat or statesman. They brokered candidates in smoke-filled rooms and wore funny hats in chaotic conventions where they thronged as much to get away from their wives as to choose our leaders. Younger political hopefuls had to butter them up or buy them out and wait their turn to run. Elections were "delivered" by "passing the word." Predictability was political gold. New ideas and faces were suspect, and politics usually catered not to the best in us but to the worst.

Onto that scene sailed John F. Kennedy with a gospel of sacrifice and vigor. The youngest president ever elected to the White House took us in a whole new direction. He invited artists and musicians and Nobel laureates to the White House because he said he wanted to celebrate the best in our culture. He played touch football and unleashed a fad for 50-mile hikes, because, he said, we had physical challenges to meet as well as mental ones.

He'd been a cipher as a congressman and only mildly attentive as a senator, but he grew with his responsibilities. He called for a New Frontier that would test us with something like the challenges our grandparents had met. He was hip and funny and smart as hell. He took the world situation seriously, but unlike most of the old pols posturing around him, he didn't seem to take himself seriously at all. He was almost flip about the pain of his lifelong back problems — made worse by war wounds — and the tragedies in his life. "Life isn't fair," he told us "but government should be."

Kennedy's genius as a leader was to appeal not to the worst that is in us, but to the best — and to make that appeal tug at our heartstrings and our brains at the same time, planting little ideas that if we would only stretch a little bit further, that we might be able to reach a star.

President Kennedy's famous acceptance speech to the New York Liberal party nomination in 1960 is ever inspiring.  But it is this segment that always lifts me out of my chair and onward toward a duty to my nation and my fellow man, and toward a better version of myself:

I believe also in the United States of America, in the promise that it contains and has contained throughout our history of producing a society so abundant and creative and so free and responsible that it cannot only fulfill the aspirations of its citizens, but serve equally well as a beacon for all mankind. I do not believe in a superstate. I see no magic in tax dollars which are sent to Washington and then returned. I abhor the waste and incompetence of large-scale federal bureaucracies in this administration as well as in others. I do not favor state compulsion when voluntary individual effort can do the job and do it well. But I believe in a government which acts, which exercises its full powers and full responsibilities. Government is an art and a precious obligation; and when it has a job to do, I believe it should do it. And this requires not only great ends but that we propose concrete means of achieving them….

Many of these same immigrant families produced the pioneers and builders of the American labor movement. They are the men who sweated in our shops, who struggled to create a union, and who were driven by longing for education for their children and for the children's development. They went to night schools; they built their own future, their union's future, and their country's future, brick by brick, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, and now in their children's time, suburb by suburb.

Tonight we salute George Meany as a symbol of that struggle and as a reminder that the fight to eliminate poverty and human exploitation is a fight that goes on in our day. But in 1960 the cause of liberalism cannot content itself with carrying on the fight for human justice and economic liberalism here at home. For here and around the world the fear of war hangs over us every morning and every night. It lies, expressed or silent, in the minds of every American. We cannot banish it by repeating that we are economically first or that we are militarily first, for saying so doesn't make it so. More will be needed than goodwill missions or talking back to Soviet politicians or increasing the tempo of the arms race. More will be needed than good intentions, for we know where that paving leads.

In Winston Churchill's words, "We cannot escape our dangers by recoiling from them. We dare not pretend such dangers do not exist."…

This is an important election — in many ways as important as any this century — and I think that the Democratic Party and the Liberal Party here in New York, and those who believe in progress all over the United States, should be associated with us in this great effort. The reason that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson had influence abroad, and the United States in their time had it, was because they moved this country here at home, because they stood for something here in the United States, for expanding the benefits of our society to our own people, and the people around the world looked to us as a symbol of hope.

Hope is very powerful. Hope in the hands of a people who are inspired to reach even further toward a dream of a better society is more powerful still. Let us all take President Kennedy up on his challenge, and rise up together to reach for the stars.

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com