Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of one of the best, if not the best, presidential speeches of all time, the Gettysburg Address. Unfortunately, this week is also the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.
All of my fellow baby boomers remember the announcement of JFK's death. I was in class at St. Theresa's elementary school in Pawtucket, R.I. The people of Pawtucket were mostly Irish Catholics and just about everybody in town had a picture of JFK in their homes. The people there, including my family, idolized JFK because he was one of our own. The assassination was a horrible shock to me, the people of Pawtucket and the rest of the nation.
I didn't plan to write about the assassination, because thinking about the young president's untimely death still depresses me 50 years later. But the Gettysburg anniversary focused me on presidential speeches, including JFK's famous inaugural address. Since the message is so uplifting, the speech is a great way of turning depression about JFK's death into inspiration for the future.
The part of the speech I like best is "ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country." The speech came at a time when the greatest generation of Americans, who had survived the horrors of the Great Depression and World War II, was at the height of its power. Kennedy had a friendly audience because he spoke to millions of Americans who had made tremendous sacrifices for their country. The greatest generation knew from experience that if Americans worked together for the common ground, the United States could survive any catastrophe and then prosper.
The worst contrast to Kennedy's speech was a question that Ronald Reagan often asked people during his 1980 presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter. He asked Americans if they were better off than they had been four years before. Reagan also spoke to a friendly audience. By that time, the baby boomers of the "me" generation were coming to power. The boomers wanted to know what was in it for them if they voted for Gov. Reagan. Their parents wanted to give, but the boomers wanted to take.
These days, many Americans have little regard for their fellow citizens. Corporate CEO's with multimillion dollar paychecks care little that one in five children in this country live in poverty. This holiday season, the corporate giant Walmart is sponsoring food drives for its employees. Walmart would still make billions of dollars in profits and not have to hold food drives if the giant retailer paid its employees a living wage. In his inaugural, Kennedy said, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."
But I'm optimistic because the generation of Americans that is now coming to power, known as the millennials, thinks more like their grandparents than their parents. In "Millennial Makeover," researchers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais demonstrated the millenials, like their grandparents and unlike their parents, are as concerned about their neighbors as they are for themselves. The greatest generation was united in a desire to unite the nation, while the boomers divided the country.
The great political historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had a hand in writing the Kennedy inaugural address, believed in a cyclical pattern in American politics. In "The Cycles of American History," Schlesinger described the cycle "as a shift between public purpose and private regard." The members of the greatest generation acted out of concern for others, but the boomers who followed their parents acted out of concern for themselves. It's time for more public regard, so bring on the millenials!