Forty years ago, on Nov. 22, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Of course, all of our parents remember when they heard the news on that late-November day. Some of them even choke up. Our parents recall how President Kennedy embodied optimism, hope and a spirit that the American ideal would prevail, provided that citizens put their country’s interests ahead of their own. In the aftermath of that tragic day in 1963, it was hoped that Kennedy’s optimism and spirit would survive. Forty years later, it saddens me to say that this brand of confidence and hope is long deceased.
Forty years ago, in his 1961 inaugural address, Kennedy pled for Americans to make sacrifices for the benefit of the Nation. “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” However, in our culture today, sacrifice is replaced by greed. In 2000, then-Governor George W. Bush campaigned on the promise of a large tax break; in 2001, President Bush propelled through Congress the largest tax cut in the history of this nation. The surplus, we were told, belonged to the taxpayers and should be returned, and the budget should be balanced. Yet we face a projected $500 billion deficit this fiscal year, $300 billion of which stems directly from these irresponsible tax breaks for the wealthy. States, now under great financial burden, are cutting services to make ends meet — police are being taken off the street; school funding is being slashed; and the unemployed, whose numbers have grown by 2.6 million since Bush took office, no longer have access to job training programs. President Kennedy’s hopes for a stronger America are long forgotten.
Forty years ago, Kennedy was committed to improving America’s image abroad. The Peace Corps was established in 1961 to send American citizens to aid developing countries. Kennedy fostered a closer relationship with Latin America, increasing trade with our southern neighbors. On the President and First Lady’s trips to Europe, crowds in Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Great Britain greeted the American leader with praise and warmth. In these same countries today, protests against American foreign policy are not infrequent. American flags painted with swastikas are displayed alongside signs that compare Bush to Adolf Hitler. The modern American image abroad is anything but praised.
Forty years ago, Kennedy inspired an entire generation of Americans to become active in the political process. Huge numbers of young citizens joined political campaigns or the Peace Corps; many others just became more aware of political happenings. Today, young Americans seem apathetic about politics. In the 1972 presidential election, the first after the passage of the 26th amendment, 71 percent of registered voters in the 18 to 21-year-old demographic went to the polls. In 2000, the percentage of 18 to 21-year-olds voting was slightly higher than 30 percent. The drop, perhaps, can be attributed to a lack of interest caused by a dearth of inspiring leaders. Kennedy’s spirit of optimism and impassioned rhetoric has been replaced by a largely partisan debate with bickering emanating from both sides of the aisle.
Forty years ago, political debate in this nation was characterized by a more positive tone. Americans had confidence in the future; Americans had a purpose; Americans had a foreign policy of which they could be proud. Kennedy described the dawning of a “New Frontier” with a renewed commitment to democracy and American values. Today, as we plot a course into the new millennium, Kennedy’s values are far from mainstream. Sacrifice has been replaced by greed; international cooperation overpowered by unilateral action; interest in politics uprooted by partisan bickering. On this occasion, the 40th anniversary of the death of our 35th president, we should observe these differences in American politics. We should consider how we can change the tone of today’s political debate and how to right the path of our nation so that we can once again bask in the spirit of confidence, hope and optimism Kennedy embodied 40 years ago.
Jonathan Menitove is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.