On Jan. 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, threw out a challenge to a generation of young Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Seven months later, on Aug. 4, 1961, Barack Obama was born, and he grew up with that call to action. Kennedy’s words were in the air, including in Hawaii and Kansas and Chicago. They were taught in school. They helped to fuel civil rights marches and anti-war parades. They inspired millions of young Americans, including a future president, to rise above narrow self interest.
On Tuesday, President Obama paid Kennedy’s gift forward. In a speech in Chicago, the president called another generation of Americans to public service, and he called on every citizen to recommit to the American ideal.
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift, but it is really just a piece of parchment; it has no power on its own. We the people give it power,” Obama said. “When something needs fixing, then mess up your shoes and do some organizing…. Grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.”
Kennedy, whatever else history has had to say about him, stirred a generation to care a little more, and it will be terrific if we can look back one day and say Obama did the same, for all else that history might have to say about him. Our hard-biting times could stand more of that.
That was the flip side of Obama’s speech, that we live in perilous times — not because of foreign terrorists, but because of deep social and economic divisions.
The Founding Fathers, he said, understood that a successful democracy “does require a basic sense of solidarity, the idea that for all our outward differences we are all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.”
But that sense of solidarity, the notion that we are all equally Americans, he said, is threatened by the increasing coarseness of our politics, by a splintered media that makes it easy to avoid having our assumptions challenged, by a rejection of science and reason and by an unwillingness to concede that an opponent might, shockingly, be making a fair point.
“Ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy said. “Ask what you can do for your country.”
That’s one way of saying it.
“This is the great gift our Founders gave us,” Obama said. “The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, toil and imagination – and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.”
Not quite so catchy, but that works, too.
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