On this fiftieth anniversary of his assassination, the speculation on John F. Kennedy’s death and its impact on the country have reached a crescendo. Even a half-century later, conspiracy still shrouds the tragedy. For those alive at the time, there is recollection of where they were when they first heard the news and how it shaped their lives. There is talk of a nation that lost its innocence on that day and irreversibly changed forever.
But for me, there is one monumental way in which America fifty years later is different from America in 1963. And if we choose, we can indeed return to the days of JFK.
Since Kennedy’s death, we have forgotten how to trust our government.
Today we celebrate JFK as a great American leader who embodies the values of liberalism and the Democratic Party. He is a remarkable confirmation that those two concepts, American leadership and liberal values, are not mutually exclusive. While he challenged all Americans to come together and assist one another, he also saw government as the best vehicle for those efforts: Government could be a solution to many of our problems and we should not shy away from addressing those problems through the political process.
His determination to conquer great challenges through government is best exemplified in his speech on space exploration at Rice University in September, 1962:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
At the time of Kennedy’s speech, landing a man on the moon was still a task that seemed beyond impossible, much less a feat that could be achieved within the decade. JFK knew the obstacles and anyone in their right mind would almost be mad to suggest his proposal. However, he also knew the stakes in the space race — the benefits that could come for all Americans and future generations if we could achieve the impossible. Perhaps most importantly, he believed in what the American people were capable of if they were unified and if their government had a clear objective. On July 20, 1969, with less than 6 months to spare and against all odds, NASA successfully achieved JFK’s goal.
Kennedy’s agenda and much of its passage during his presidency and in the wake of his assassination provided a number of government solutions to problems the country faced in the early 1960s: the New Frontier, the creation of the Peace Corps, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. It’s therefore no surprise that trust in government in the Kennedy era reached 76%, a peak it has unfortunately never come close to since.
Despite the popularity of Johnson’s Great Society programs, US involvement in the Vietnam War overshadowed his presidency. Vietnam had been a foreign policy situation Kennedy treated very delicately as president, apparently intent to avoid an unnecessary foreign entanglement. It is impossible to know how Kennedy would have handled Vietnam, but Johnson’s troop escalations commenced a downward drop in public trust that was punctuated by Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal.
Twenty years after JFK, the rhetoric had changed in Washington and Kennedy’s legacy was all but forgotten. President Ronald Reagan adopted the antithesis of Kennedy’s philosophy, famously proclaiming that I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ Reagan’s rhetoric could hardly have been more damaging to our democracy because its negativity has defined our attitude towards government for at least thirty years.
Since Reagan’s declaration, we have prevented government from becoming part of the solution time and time again. Government programs that were very effectively addressing the nation’s social and economic ills have been rolled back. Problems that government had solved have crept slowly back into existence and new problems have gone unaddressed.
Reagan’s philosophy has directed us that if we cannot afford current government spending, then we should make cuts without further tax increases. If welfare assistance programs are flawed, then we should repeal them, without any regard to leaving our fellow Americans unable to feed their families. If Social Security or Medicare are on a course towards bankruptcy, then we should privatize them.
American exceptionalism, which both Kennedy and Reagan championed just as much as anyone else, exists because of our government. It is cast out of the principles the Founding Fathers enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It is borne out every time we refuse to accept that a problem might be too big, or a crisis might be too dire, for us to fix. When we admit that government of the people, by the people, and for the people cannot be the answer, we are simply admitting defeat. We are forfeiting that unique exceptionalism that precipitated in America’s status as the strongest and most prosperous nation in modern history.
There is perhaps no better time than the present for a reminder of the powerful force for good that democratic government can become. With the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, we have once again attempted to use government to address a national crisis: rising healthcare costs and millions of uninsured citizens. Much like Kennedy, President Obama made the case that the issue of health insurance reform was worth tackling. The universal push-back from Republicans has only indicated that they continue to subscribe to Reagan’s theory on government.
No law is ever perfect. Our democracy is an ever-changing, constantly shifting organism. We do not have the same government we had in 1789 because we do not have the same problems we had in 1789. The heart of liberalism is the idea that every day we can improve on what we built the day before.
The Affordable Care Act roll-out has not gone smoothly, but it is a start. It is an attempt to do better and we can continue to strive to do even better. We shouldn’t turn back now. Republicans are using the technical glitches to argue that we should give up — repeal the law entirely. On the basis of their political philosophy, they are demanding we admit defeat.
But Kennedy gave us the perfect response to such defeatism: We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.