Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ask not...

Lots of "anniversaries" recently... the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech among them. (And, perhaps just as important in terms of the content if not the emotional charge, Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address with his warning about the development of the "military-industrial complex.")

One observation I have made about media recollections of Kennedy's address, made all the more significant by the fact that our current president was born 6 months after that day in early 1961: there continues to be a widespread assumption that we all remember Kennedy's inaugural address. A suggestion, however muted, that we have personally witnessed and yet perhaps not quite responded to his powerful words calling us to service.

Kennedy's words (like Eisenhower's) live on with the immortality of those statements that carry a ring of eternal truth. It is time to recognize, however, that these fifty years--a mere blink in our historical memory--nonetheless bring with them not one, but at least two generations of adult Americans, coming to maturity (?) in a post-Kennedy era. To suggest that we bring with us a personal link to Kennedy is to deny not only the changing face of America, but to bind ourselves to the emotions of a particular time and place without offering ourselves the opportunity to evaluate in historical context.

Kennedy's address--and his presidency--have lessons to offer us that travel lightyears beyond the emotions of the time. Personal connection is powerful, and we can continue to be moved personally even by events and statements we did not witness. It is time, however, to move beyond the personal and into the reality of a world where intelligent, honest, earnest people can begin to assess with the detachment of historical rather than living memory.

We need the witnesses. When the witnesses are finally gone--and I pray that will not be the case for many years to come--we need their memories, written, recorded and otherwise preserved. We also, however, need to move on, to recognize that we are no longer a nation of the 1960s, even as we continue to be a nation deeply impacted by the history of the 1960s. These are two different things.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would add that, as suggested by this brief article from The New Yorker ( about Eisenhower's farewell speech, even those who were present don't always have all the information to be able to fully understand the intentions of such a speech. It takes a half a century and the discovery of an old box of speech drafts to really understand what was going on.