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In this Feb. 23, 1962 file photo, astronaut John Glenn and President John F. Kennedy inspect the Friendship 7, the Mercury capsule in which Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. At right is Vice President Lyndon Johnson. (AP Photo/Vincent P. Connolly, File)

Kadner: How an inaugural speech can inspire greatness

SHARE Kadner: How an inaugural speech can inspire greatness
SHARE Kadner: How an inaugural speech can inspire greatness

With the recent loss of astronauts John Glenn and Gene Cernan, it somehow felt as though the future had died with the past.

There was a time when this nation’s space program epitomized the greatness of this country. As the nation strove to put a man on the moon, the future seemed limitless. The end of poverty and war, the colonization of distant planets, were not dreams but possibilities.

OPINION

Because of the deaths of Glenn and Cernan, I found myself thinking about those early days of the space program, how the country seems to have changed and the presidential inaugural on Friday.

In testimony before a congressional committee in 2011, Cernan said President John F. Kennedy had challenged the American people to do “what most thought could not be done.”

“The space program has never been an entitlement,” Cernan stated, “it’s an investment in the future — an investment in technology, jobs, international respect and geopolitical leadership and, perhaps most importantly, in the inspiration and education of our youth.”

Reading Cernan’s passionate plea to continue the manned space program, I thought about some other words that seemed important in my youth: Kennedy’s inaugural address.

That’s remembered best for the quote, “…ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

But there was much more to that speech.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” Kennedy said.

“To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required …. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

“To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge – to convert our good words into good deeds – in a new alliance for progress – to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty…”

How strange that message seems to the one our country is sending today that a wall must be built on the border between the U.S. and our neighbors to the south.

Kennedy continued, “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Kennedy was not a perfect man. He made mistakes as president. But his words appealed to the better angels of the American people.

From the very beginning of his administration, he made it clear that this nation, our people, had great expectations and responsibilities. The belief that we could not only reach for the stars but grab them, made this a better country.

The space program was a culmination of creativity, imagination, invention, knowledge and ambition, combined with a pioneering spirit that has always symbolized this country. That’s the spark that allowed John Glenn and Gene Cernan to become heroes.

That’s greatness.

Ideas matter. Words count. For those who have forgotten, or never understood, an inaugural address can spark a fire that can light the world.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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