John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, stepped to the microphone to deliver his inaugural address on January 21, 1961, and began by urging “both sides” of a contentious divide to set aside their ongoing squabbles over “the balance of power.”
American politics has come a long way in the past half-century. Any contemporary president urging unity is assumed to be addressing the entrenched two-party partisanship of our gridlocked system of governance. In Kennedy’s time, the admonishment extended to a rival superpower in Russia, surging economic forces in Asia and Europe, and a developing world that looked toward the U.S. for guidance and aid.
This inaugural address contains JFK’s most quoted line: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Just as importantly, the fresh president put out a global call for “a new world of law where the strong are just, the weak secure and the peace preserved.”
Kennedy further insisted that America had a primary purpose, to engage wholeheartedly in “a struggle … against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
The young president acknowledged that the common enemies of America and the world would not be defeated in the first 100 days of his administration, or even during our lifetimes: “But let us begin.”
On the anniversary of the day his hopeful presidency was cut short in 1963, it’s worthwhile to pause and reflect. No one in the meantime has better summed up what needs to be done. So let’s get started.