JFK’s Immortal Challenge

Originally published in the Burlington Free Press as a “My Turn” op-ed on January 20, 2006. This will give you some sense of my core values around self-governance and the duty of the citizenry.

Forty-five years ago today, President John F. Kennedy issued his immortal challenge to citizens of the United States: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

The challenge resonated. More than that, it ignited the political imagination of the entire country. The Peace Corps blossomed as Americans, mostly freshly minted college graduates, flocked to offer the world the best we could offer, at no charge. The civil rights movement mushroomed. Set our sights on the moon? Why not!

What had Jack Kennedy done at the end of his inaugural address? How had he managed to stir such a strong emotional response with such simple words?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in America’s uneasy relationship with politics. Even the founding fathers were unified in the hope that politics in the United States would be as exceptional as everything else about its origin: that it would be a politics without parties, that it would be a politics of ideas instead of a politics of interests.

Of course, those who created the American Revolution were motivated less by what a new government in the colonies would do than by what getting rid of the English government would stop: stop the regulation of trade, stop the prohibition on settlement of Iroquois territory in Pennsylvania, stop the damned stamp tax.

And these revolutionaries were, after all, descendants of people who had chosen to escape the intensely political and class-bound societies of Europe: a self-selected group of people who viewed government as a barrier to achievement. For these people, politics prevented them from enjoying life and pursuing happiness. Their take on government became a common family value in colonial America.

So it was no wonder that their Revolutionary War era descendants would try to fashion a system of government whose own checks and balances would replace the hurly burly of politics. The founding fathers were products of a culture where politics was held in low regard and economic achievement the real focus of interest.

But a politics-free nation wasn’t to be. Free people exhibit a truth about our species: we are an intensely social species and seek out community and connections and build and defend them with great passion. Even in a country where the vast majority really isn’t the least bit interested in politics, politics and political parties thrive. Maybe not so many of them: for that you need a highly politicized culture with a passion for shades of political thought, as you have in Europe. Here in America, two or maybe three parties every now and then are just about all the politically-interested citizens can sustain in the face of such broad disinterest.

So on that intensely cold Friday in 1961, why did that line create an explosive round of applause and, arguably, trigger “the Sixties” and the pervasive political involvement of that time?

“Ask not what your country can do for you” resonated because Americans understood instinctively what Kennedy was saying: that government in America will never be about being in the business of doing favors for anyone, so don’t bother asking. “Ask what you can do for your country.” Rather, step up and recognize that what we have can be a great instrument for good, that our country can become greater: economically, socially, culturally – if each of us steps up to the challenge of using, well, politics, to create greater good in all aspects of our county’s life.

With this bit of verbal jujitsu, Kennedy legitimized politics as a force for good, as a worthy and honorable activity, and a generation responded. As he had said moments before, “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

Yet, here, today, forty-five years later, all the air has gone out of the challenge. Americans have learned, through the efforts of the Goldwater/Reagan faction of the Republican Party, to see government as their Old World ancestors did: a hated oppressor of initiative, an unfair system of taxation, something to revile. People who insist that government can and ought to be a positive force for good are mocked. And the government itself appears to be entirely under the control of those who ask “what favors can the government grant you today?”

So today, my fellow Americans, I say to you: Ask not what your country can do for you – Ask what you can do for your country.

F. X. Flinn
Quechee, Vermont
January 2006
Copyright 2006 by F. X. Flinn. All rights reserved.