This week saw the passing of the birthday — almost without notice — of a recent American president: John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, and there was no special reason to note his birthday. He was in office for less than three years, and one could argue that his death — the assassination on November 22, 1963 — had more impact on American history than anything he did while in office. Immediately after the assassination, there was a wave of adulation for Kennedy. Much of that was directed by the Kennedy family themselves.
Then there was the backlash — the reassessment of just about everything that Kennedy had done or had tried to do. Most of the conclusions then were negative or made with the patronizing caveat that he wasn’t in office long enough for us to know what kind of a president he really would have been.
Though flawed politically and personally, Kennedy was a young and powerful voice in the early 1960s, and he was a gifted and eloquent speaker. (He also had a gifted and eloquent speechwriter in Theodore Sorensen.) On many topics, Kennedy articulated the best of what America was or could become. For instance:
Kennedy on the importance of the arts in American life:
“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty…an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” –“Remarks at Amherst College upon receiving an Honorary Degree
“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose…and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.” –“LOOK magazine, ‘The Arts in America’ (552),” December 18, 1962, Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, 1962. (Inscribed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.)
Kennedy on the importance of freedom of the press:
Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution–not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.
Kennedy on the importance of openness in government
The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control.
Kennedy on seeking peace in a dangerous world (American University speech)
Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need to use them is essential to keeping the peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles — which can only destroy and never create — is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war — and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.
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