JFK's 'Ask Not...' Inaugural Still Inspires 50 Years Later

We should think more the common good and less about what’s good for each of us.


Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

I was a kid but I remember the excitement in my Irish Catholic family as one of our own became president of the United States of America. I can only imagine what black Americans felt when Barack Obama became president two years ago. 

[See five lessons from Eisenhower's farewell and JFK's inaugural.]

The famous line or sound bite in the speech was of course “Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.” That sentiment is sadly absent in politics today. Many Americans only care about themselves and what society can do for them. Contrast President Kennedy’s words with the naked appeal to self interest in a question Ronald Reagan delivered during the 1980 presidential campaign when he asked “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” [See a gallery of photos commemorating Reagan's 100th birthday.]

We would be a better country if we thought more the common good and less about what’s good for each of us. Late last year, the party of tea pushed successfully for a continuation of the Bush tax bonanza for bankers and billionaires that will cost the federal government $60 billion a year. Wealthy Americans hit the jackpot with the extension of these tax cuts but they did not serve the public interest.

According to a New York Times analysis published on December 15, 2010, we could have used this money to triple federal funding for medical research or to provide preschool with small class sizes for every 3 or 4 year old American or for a national program to provide jobs to people who would work to repair highways, bridges, mass transit systems and dams. Any of these programs would serve the nation’s best interests more than giving tax cuts to Americans who are already doing real well without the extra help of the government. [See editorial cartoons about the economy.]

I am using Profiles in Courage for the college political science course I am teaching this semester. The book, like the speech, concerns the triumph of public interest over self interest. John Kennedy wrote this book when he was a young U.S. Senator and he featured the stories of senators who sacrificed their political careers because they acted in the best interests of the nation and put aside their own political self interests.

Since the leadership of the House of Representatives has admirably made the Constitution required reading, maybe the Senate should do the same thing for Profiles in Courage.

  • See the month's best political cartoons.
  • See 2010: The Year in Cartoons.
  • See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.