What President Obama Can Learn From JFK
John Kennedy is one of my favorite presidents and certainly one of my favorites in the modern era. In a little under three years he had made a significant impact on the mood of the country and the direction of our foreign policy. Most Americans agree with polls regularly placing him among top 5 best presidents and according to Gallup, Americans most recently ranked him as the second greatest president after Ronald Reagan. They also think his should be the next face added to Mount Rushmore.
You can certainly argue that our fondness of the late president is largely rooted in nostalgia caused by his rock star (we used to call that Camelot) and later, martyr status after his tragic death in Dallas. The implication is that Americans don't really understand the substance of his administration. There's probably some truth to that idea, but I'm impressed by the instincts the public has continually displayed in it's support of what I believe was a great man with strong character and key insights in to a complicated world.
For today’s generation, his most relevant and prolific speech might be the one he gave during a commencement address at American University only five months before his death. He called it “the peace speech” and in it he called for an end to the cold war which had nearly destroyed the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Right now we are at the dawn of a new cold war which threatens to destroy the country. I'm not talking about a new Russian alliance or the present threat of international terrorism, but rather the slowly intensifying culture war. Yes, the culture wars of abortion, gay marriage and religion in the public square have been subdued in recent years due to the economic downturn, but many of the partisans on both sides are motivated by these passionate issues to demonize the other side and assume the worst of their counterparts.
While it remains somewhat innocuous now, this new cold war could thaw as America's economic and diplomatic position in the world continues to degrade. Mainstream publications are increasingly discussing the long term solvency of our societal bonds and while they are dismissive of the chances of serious disaster, that they would even discuss it at all should be an indicator that confidence is lower now than at any time in recent memory. While many Americans are continuing their lives, aware of only subtle hints that anything is seriously wrong, there is a creeping sense among the politically engaged that in the long term, the republic could fracture.
to peace was
similarly complicated by hard line radicals in the military
industrial complex and the intelligence community who saw combating
the Soviet Union's expansionist agenda as a battle between good and
evil. The United States was united against another country then, but
the similarities are there.
Kennedy's commencement address a year later is absolutely relevant to our current divisions as minor as they may sometimes seem, next to the horrors of nuclear war. Almost every line relates back to the basic concept that through proper communication we can bridge our differences.
“Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament--and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it.” He goes on. “Let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”
President Obama's base of support, especially during the early part of the 2008 campaign, was partially based on the idea that we can bridge the gaps between us through reasoned and measured discussion. His second book, The Audacity of Hope, is perhaps the single best encapsulation of this philosophy. And yet, beginning in late 2008, and intensifying throughout his presidency, he has completely abandoned those ideas.
Kennedy was encircled by detractors who wanted to provoke conflict with communist forces around the world and yet he resisted, not once, but repeatedly and had he lived, there is no telling how much suffering we could have avoided during the Vietnam War.
President Obama should learn from Kennedy's example. The country's survival may depend on it.