Today is the 52nd anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, one of my personal and political heroes. The day on which he was shot by the solitary action of a small, petty, angry and otherwise insignificant man–Lee Harvey Oswald–was a very dark day for America and for the world. I wasn’t born when Kennedy was alive, but his vision for a compassionate and courageous democracy has inspired me for as long as I’ve been interested in politics and history, which is to say most of my life. He certainly wasn’t perfect, as a man or as a President, but even in his imperfections I think he set a very positive example of how even flawed people (and who isn’t flawed?) can have an enormous positive impact on history. If you’re interested in reading a very lucid and inspiring biography of Kennedy, both his greatness and his drawbacks, I highly recommend Robert Dallek’s 2003 book An Unfinished Life, which I’ve read twice.
Here are some of the wonderful words of John F. Kennedy which I think are as relevant and wise in our time as they were in the 1960s.
Acting on our own, by ourselves, we cannot establish justice throughout the world; we cannot insure its domestic tranquility, or provide for its common defense, or promote its general welfare, or secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. But joined with other free nations, we can do all this and more. We can assist the developing nations to throw off the yoke of poverty. We can balance our worldwide trade and payments at the highest possible level of growth. We can mount a deterrent powerful enough to deter any aggression. And ultimately we can help to achieve a world of law and free choice, banishing the world of war and coercion. (July 1962)
Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. (June 1963)
I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year. (May 1961)
[T]he educated citizen knows how much more there is to know. He knows that “knowledge is power,” more so today than ever before. He knows that only an educated and informed people will be a free people, that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all, and that if we can, as Jefferson put it, “enlighten the people generally … tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” And, therefore, the educated citizen has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, to promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry, to support the advancement of research, and to assist at every level of government the improvement of education for all Americans, from grade school to graduate school. (May 1963)
Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us. While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, for all the world to see, we take no satisfaction in it, for it is, as your [the Mayor of Berlin] has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together. (June 1963)
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction. (October 1963)
So let us not be petty when our cause is so great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake. Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our cause — united in our heritage of the past and our hopes for the future — and determined that this land we love shall lead all mankind into new frontiers of peace and abundance. (Remarks that he would have made on November 22, 1963, but never got to).
Let us remember the great and wise man who was John F. Kennedy. I wish we had more leaders like him.