Leonard Pitts Jr. via the Miami Herald 1-19-2011
(c) 2011, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Once upon a time, on a snow-filled day when we were young, we saw a man give a speech from a podium in front of the Capitol building. Do you remember?
He had just taken the oath of office to become our president and now he faced us for the first time in that role. And he had hair, remember that? A thick helmet of brown hair. You noted it because we had learned to think of presidents as having gray hair, or none at all.
But here was this new president, this John F. Kennedy, and he had dark hair and a beautiful wife and two little kids. It was 1961 — Jan. 20, 1961, in fact, half a century ago this week. It was the space age, the transistor age, the rock ‘n’ roll age; we had outlasted the troubles of the ’30s, defeated the great menace of the ’40s, escaped the grim, gray ’50s and now, here we were, fresh and energized, embarking on this new era, ready to take on the world.
So it just felt right, just seemed to fit, on a snowy day when we were so young, to have a brand new president who was so young, too.
Have you ever noticed how nobody remembers what a president says on his first day on the job? He delivers this big speech that is supposed to lay out the themes for the four years to follow, but it is rare that the speech proves memorable.
Does anyone recall what Obama said? Or Clinton? Or Coolidge, Hayes, Grant, Jackson or Pierce?
Yes, we remember what Franklin Roosevelt said: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
And we remember what Abraham Lincoln said:“With malice toward none, with charity for all . . .”
As it turned out, we would remember, too, what John F. Kennedy said on that snowy day when we were young.
“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century . . .”
“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe . . .”
And, most famously: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Sounds odd 50 years on, doesn’t it? We have grown used to presidents extolling the things we can have. Here was a president imploring us to give.
It had a bracing effect upon us, for it gave voice to an invigorating ideal: that we were more than just flotsam in the current of human events, more than just impotent witnesses to the triumphs and tragedies of our day, that we had an obligation to our nation, and that in meeting it, we could change the world. It drove us into military service, it drove us into public service, it drove us into the Peace Corps, to live and work in the undeveloped world. Suddenly, the air was charged with the understanding that we could do.
And maybe that last sentence sounds incomplete to you. But see, the lesson wasn’t about what we could do, or how we could do, but that we could do, that transformation lived within our hands.
We were so young on that snow-filled day.
This was before we learned that Kennedy was fooling around with Marilyn and anyone else in a skirt. It was before we knew he was debilitated by bad health. It was before the riot in Watts, before the plumbers burgled that DNC office in the Watergate complex, before a helicopter plucked our people from a rooftop in Saigon, before we were held hostage at an embassy in Tehran, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was before the Ambassador Hotel, the Lorraine Motel. It was before Dallas.
More to the point, it was before we learned to lower our expectations and wear cynicism like armor into an often disappointing world. We have come a great distance from that snow-filled day half a century ago. We are young sometimes, still.
But we have never managed to be quite that young again.