Tears

Maybe the Speaker started something. If men are now allowed to cry in public, the one writing these words have certainly availed himself of this new privilege in the past two weeks. From hearing that Congresswoman Giffords had opened her eyes and the heroism of so many who allowed her to live, and saved as many lives as possible when her fears were realized and a young man who was so easily able to purchase a gun to kill her, to hearing again the first words I can recall having been spoken as a president was inaugurated, the tears have flown very freely.

They came while praying for Congresswoman Gifford’s recovery, when I heard that the woman who wrote the music to the very words Reform Jews say in those circumstances, herself died of the pneumonia which resulted from a too brief lifetime filled with illness. They came when watching others sing songs of praise to that woman, Debbie Friedman, and then a few days later, when watching fourth graders in Washington D.C. read the famous words spoken there by Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr, in the summer of 1963. And it is completely impossible to stay dry eyed as the nation listened again the words that first entered the unformed mind of an eight year old who has felt for every minute since then the need to fulfill the President’s command that he ask what he can do for his country.

It was the first civil event which remains in my memory bank. I saw it because school was cancelled by the northeastern snow storm that day and there was nothing else on television. Much of what President Kennedy said that day meant nothing to me, but some it hit home in an unformed mind where its words, repeated so many times since then, are fully etched today.

The speech itself has been quoted under this name so many times, it seems pointless to do so in any great length here. The NBC News coverage anchored, of course, by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley has been posted for some time and is well worth the hour plus it takes to watch.

That coverage could cause a tear or two to be shed because of how long gone that hopeful time seems to be. A recent book about the speech by Thurston Clarke is fascinating particularly in what it says about President Kennedy himself and how foreign his approach to the speech, much less the presidency itself, is to today’s way of thinking (or of avoiding thought).

In putting the speech and its crafting in context, Clarke returns the original meaning the President intended when he told the world that we would

pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty

was not a call to arms (“though arms we need”) but a foreshadow of the signature line of the speech:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country

These words reached the people inspired by them, including this Public Servant, in a much different world than we live in today. It was a world of limitless possibilities, as “President Barlet” described it more recently and not a place where every new idea is met with skepticism and doubt.

No, Senator Lieberman: President Kennedy would not be a Republican today. He would be grossly disappointed, as was his recently departed brother, Sen Edward M Kennedy, with a Congress converted from an instrument of policy into a perpetual campaign for re-election. He would not be happy to see a country avoid its most serious problems and would never sit still while we poured our country’s wealth into the coffers of foreign dictators in possession of a fossil fuel we have decided is worth forfeiting our soul for, rather than standing for

the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought…–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God….–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

President Kennedy, far more than his father, a member of the Roosevelt administration, believed in the New Deal and sought to expand it to what he called a New Frontier. He tried with all his power to convince Congress to enact some expanded health care at least for those who needed it most and for the end of the accepted roadblocks preventing some of our citizens to enjoy even the basic rights accorded to the majority of us.

And then he was murdered, and in some form or another, those bills were enacted by a Congress in shame. He died in an atmosphere of hate, as discussed here last week but, as also discussed last week, no literal connection could be made between his assassination and the noise of the day, just as none could be made of Congresswoman Gifford’s would be assassin and the same drumbeat today.

All the words about the speech of fifty years past and the current President’s beautiful address in Tuscon the other day present the antithesis of that darkness, which dominates our civic and economic lives today. And, yes, as President Kennedy said

civility is not a sign of weakness

but the selfish rants of those uninterested in what they can do for their country, but how much money they can make from its citizens, and their shrill defenders have all but shattered the dreams we all had as President Kennedy told us to “begin.”

The university where our current president spoke the other day, houses a political science professor emeritus who wrote a book a few years back called “Defining Danger: American Assassins and the New Domestic Terrorists.”

He sent this to the New York Times which published it earlier this week:

To the Editor:

Over a long academic career, I have researched and written about 21 American assassins, would-be assassins and domestic terrorists. It is pure nonsense to suggest, as some have, that the political environment has nothing to do with the actions of very disturbed individuals — as Jared L. Loughner appears to be — who plan and attack political figures in public venues.

James W. Clarke
Tucson, Jan. 14, 2011

And so we cry.

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6 thoughts on “Tears

  1. I have this voice in my head telling me JFK wouldn’t have put up with this nonsense. People with a conscience and who respect the truth, from the moment they leave the womb, are destined to face challenges that most cringe from. It’s rather simple actually. Compromising the truth isn’t a one off deal. It’s cumulative. And inevitably leads us to where we happen to be at the moment.

    1. Barth

      It is not a matter of putting up with anything. He had the same problems with Congress as the current president does. What were then called “southern democrats” are now called Republicans, so the only difference was that the Democratic Party was in clear control of the committee chairmanships and the held the majority in both houses, but the committee chairs, particularly in the Senate, were all southern Republicans uninterested in, for instance, providing medical assistance to poor black people. They generally did not have to filibuster the bills, since the chairmen killed them in committee, but civil rights bills made it to the floor in 1957, 1958 and 1962 and were filibustered into oblivion. The Kennedy Administration gave civil rights (and medical care for the poor and aged) a big push in 1963 but nothing was moving as the parties began looking to the 1964 presidential election.

      Then, of course, came Dallas and everything changed. While President Kennedy had a decent chance of re-election, in the wake of his murder Americans were in no mood for further change and President Johnson was not open to serious challenge. Regular Republicans lost interest in a pointless nomination and the right wing was thus able to take nominal control of the party. Some former Democrat, but now right wing movie actor was even asked to do the formal placing of Sen Goldwater in nomination and he won and made a bellicose speech, less than a year after the President was killed, about how extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice.

      President Johnson won in a landslide. Even before then, and before he enlarged the majorities in Congress, the assassination backlash got the first major civil rights bill passed, and the huge northern Democratic and liberal Republican (there were such people then) majorities in Congress passed medicaid, medicare and the voting rights act.

      In sum, it took the President’s murder to move forward. That was way too high a price to pay and I think that second term JFK, with a modest gain in Congress, might have gotten some of this by the force of his spellbinding voice, especially since he would never have to face voters again.

      But we’ll never know. We have a chance to approximate that, if President Obama is re-elected and the House returned to Speaker Pelosi.

      1. It took the murder of JFK to force southern democrats (republicans) to accept the truth of civil rights. It’s laid out for them and for all of us in very plain language in our constitution. I have a saying on the wall in my office.

        The truth is seldom hard to find. Acknowledging it though, is a far more elusive undertaking.

        It is worth remembering that the truth is agnostic in every way. People aren’t. Not only that, but there is a direct linkage between the growing dishonesty in the political and in business which can be easily related to the root causes for our difficulties. There exists a clear proportional relationship between this growing dishonesty and our deteriorating circumstances.

        It’s a virtual certainty that this will lead to some formulation of complete social and financial collapse. The nurturing of relationships, including ones of governance, can’t happen in a climate of dishonesty. And as is often the case, because of that, they end disastrously.

        1. Barth

          I agree with your “it is worth” paragraph, nut I am not sure about your “virtual certainty.” Disaster, yes. What form it takes? Dunno. Scary thought that, though.

          1. We don’t have a crystal ball and can’t know what will be the end result. We do know though that the underlying premises of dishonesty and inequity will take us to an undesirable place.

            The precise manifestation of ‘disaster’ is a variable derived of the quantities of dishonesty and inequity.

            We don’t have any idea of what threshold those quantities are or what type of event in combination with them might trigger a disaster. But again we can know the situation is ripe for a cascading sequence of events which places the entire political and social structure at risk.

            The growing animosity between left and right, rich and poor etc offers a clear view of our exposure to the aforementioned risk.

            It’s more than a little sad that because of polling and a mountain of social and financial data we can truly and objectively quantify much of this.

            However the use and interpretation of that data is an open ended aspect of the political, social and finacial processes. There exists an unquestionable and very purposeful illicit use of all this information. It’s being forged into a formidable weapon that scares the hell out of me.

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