Fifty years after John F. Kennedy summoned Americans to a new generation of leadership and patriotism, one thing is clear: This is no age of Camelot.
Were it uttered by a modern politician, Kennedy’s famous “ask not” call to service might well be derided as a socialist pitch for more government. His idyllic clamoring for a united world to “explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths” could easily be dismissed by cynics as dreamy and lacking specifics.
Today’s United States is a polarized land. But looking in on the country this week, exactly a half-century since Kennedy delivered perhaps the most famous inaugural address in American history, it’s hard to keep from wondering: In the much-changed politics of 2011, which of his carefully crafted words still resonate?
“Unfortunately, in today’s environment, speeches are more likely to say, ‘Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what you can do for your party,'” says Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to both Republicans and Democrats who recently helped establish the nonpartisan organization No Labels.
The 14-minute inaugural’s Cold War-era content, shaped by a World War II veteran for a country on the brink of cultural upheaval, is certainly outdated. Here and most everywhere else, the political environment has changed.
Yet some of the most memorable imagery in Kennedy’s story line – a torch being passed to a new generation, the trumpet summoning us again – remains potent in a nation searching for renewed purpose and vision.
A Knights of Columbus-Marist survey released Wednesday found people overwhelmingly saying that the dominant ideals Kennedy outlined – among them service and freedom – remain a focus of American citizens so many years later.
As do many of the fears and trepidations.
Americans still worry about their country’s stature. Many still believe their nation was meant for something bigger. They still seek a road map to the future, fractured though their solutions may be.
“Kennedy was trying to write words for the ages,” says Richard Tofel, author of “Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.” ”Idealism and optimism are not always in style, but they continue to stand out and they continue to have real power.”
The speech, Tofel argues, still resonates partly because of Kennedy’s belief in “a deep commitment to the nobility of public service.”
Is that a tough sell today, though? Economic recovery is sluggish, unemployment high. The country is fighting two wars and political camps are deeply, sometimes angrily divided. Confidence in political leaders to solve the nation’s woes has ebbed. And change is coming ever more quickly in a nation again facing threats to its global dominance.
“It was just such a different time and a different audience with a different view on government,” says Thurston Clarke, author of “Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America.” ”It could not be delivered now, given the way government is viewed.”
There were several key differences back then:
-The threats were different. In Cold War 1961, the main concern was the Soviets. Now, it’s terrorism from extremists who are scattered across countries and often owe allegiance to none. Also looming: the economic rise of China, India and other emerging powerhouses.
-Cynicism wasn’t as overt. Mistrust didn’t pervade America’s politics to today’s extent, in part because would-be complainers – and activists – lacked a readily available way to amplify their voices. Not everyone had a printing press or access to TV or radio. Now, technological advances give a megaphone to anyone with Wi-Fi.
-Less polarization. Popular politicians were more center-right, like Richard Nixon, and center-left, like Kennedy. Now, the far right and left dominate the public discourse, and the middle of the spectrum is more muted.
-Views on government. The Great Depression, World War II and the Interstate Highway System helped build the perception of government as a positive force. Now, after years of partisan gridlock, conservatives and many independents have soured on Washington and see federal expansion under President Barack Obama as a problem, not a solution.
“It was almost a naive confidence at that time that if the government set their mind to it, they can succeed,” says John Murphy, a rhetoric expert at the University of Illinois who is writing a book about Kennedy’s presidential speeches.
Now, he says, “people are hopeful, but they’re also dubious about how government can solve all these problems.”
Consider the evidence.
It’s in the words of the millions of Americans who fret about a sickly economy and foreign competition. It’s in the divided government that voters installed in November, forcing Obama to reach across the aisle for solutions to the nation’s biggest problems.
It’s in the debate over civility in the American political discourse. It is visible in how Americans of all political stripes, after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, praised Obama’s call for a more civil, honest dialogue.
Said Obama, “I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”
The era in which Kennedy delivered his inaugural address has receded. R. Sargent Shriver, the president’s brother-in-law and a lion in his own right, died Tuesday. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s counselor and speechwriter, died last fall. The final brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is gone, and the family is absent from Congress for the first time since 1946.
Just two years ago, Obama began his presidency with support across the political spectrum and frequent comparisons to Kennedy – both for his eloquence and his vision of an exceptional America.
Next week, Obama faces one of his administration’s landmark speeches – a State of the Union address halfway through his first term. Will he try to answer the questions that have haunted generations of Americans trying to understand the nation’s place in the world? Will he punch through the static and come through with something memorable?
Fifty years after Kennedy’s words, in the cacophony of the 21st century, can a single speech still make a difference?