Here we are marking the 50th anniversary of John F, Kennedy’s inaugural address and his challenge, “And so, my fellows Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
The “Ask not” line will be subject to more replays on our TVs and in our newspapers this month than all the plays in football bowl games combined. Yet the public mood might be better illustrated by the question Ronald Reagan asked of Americans in his 1980 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
So much of the news coverage today is about how Americans are digging in their heels at any suggestion of sacrifice or cutbacks in government programs like Medicare and Social Security; yet we recall fondly, almost to the point of veneration, JFK’s “Ask not…” declaration of Jan. 20, 1961.
Seven months earlier, Kennedy had said something similar in accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. His “New Frontier,” he said, “… sums up not what I intend to offer the American People, but what I intend to ask of them.”
But it was the idealistic “Ask not” line that was immediately recognized as eloquent and inspiring. For one thing, the contrast between JFK’s rhetorical skills and articulate nature and those of President Eisenhower was almost as striking then as similar contrasts between President Barack Obama and his predecessor are today.
It is tempting to contrast Kennedy’s call to commitment with the criticism of bailouts, earmarks and government aid that is popular today until the cutting gets personal. “Are you better off today?” is more the theme than “Ask not.”
Maybe the context is different. Kennedy’s “Ask not” was addressed to a nation in only the second decade of its Cold War against Russia and Communism and a nation where deprivation and economic hard times had been experienced by most voters. Reagan’s “Are you better off?” spoke to a generation used to good times.
Also, in 1961, the enemy we were asked to rally against was tangible yet distant. Nowadays, the enemy — government deficits and government bureaucrats — is domestic yet somewhat nebulous. The answer to today’s crisis is not sacrifice, but voting the bums out of office — except, of course, for the local congressman who keeps bringing us new roads and maybe a dam or an airport so we get our share of the pie.
Much easier to bask in the warm and patriotic memories of “Ask not what your country can do for you…” than to confront the demands of the day.