Matters Of Principle: Memories Of A Better Time

As I prepare to enter a New Year contemplating my personal uneasiness with the republican and — especially — libertarian perspectives of many, if not most, of my family, neighbors, and associates (all of whom are quite good and reasonable persons)… these words from Senator and former-presidential-candidate Gary Hart seem to define for me the huge disconnect that I experience every single day from contemporary American society.

I’m with you Gary, and thanks for sharing…



Senator Gary Hart,
Scholar in Residence and
Wirth Chair Professor
University of Colorado Denver
School of Public Affairs

For anyone under [forty-five], recollection of the brief era of John Kennedy is dismissed as nostalgia at best and sentimentalism at worst. But for those of my generation it was much more. It was a time of optimism, possibility, and promise.

Thus, the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s election and the 47th anniversary of his death bring memories of a better time for those of us who were inspired to public service, the idea of a national community, and a nation on the move toward leadership and progress.

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

MY Nation's greatest leaders & greatest loses

This famously historic call to service is the phrase still most closely associated with the Kennedy administration.

As to public service, the “Ask not” generation was not challenged to a career in elective office. We were challenged to find some way to repay the nation and the society that had given us unique opportunities. How different that was from the every-man-for himself-and-devil-take-the hindmost attitude of those who get the most media attention now.

But of course, in the early 60s we had no Murdoch, no Fox, no “reality” television, no self-promoting political figures eager to put in their time in office so that they can reap the lobbying rewards awash on K Street in Washington […if you don’t know whose offices are on K Street, do some research].

One does not expect Republican politicians to advocate public service, for their mantra is “the government is the problem.” Leave aside the fact they all seem eager to control it. But it is a cause for wonder that Presidents Clinton and Obama have not echoed the Kennedy challenge. The Clinton era did bring us AmericaCorps, a volunteer national service program based on City Year and initiatives introduced years earlier. But there has not been the kind of ringing call that so motivated my generation of young Americans.

Most noted for drafting the Kennedy inaugural address: Theodore Chaikin “Ted” Sorensen (May 8, 1928 – October 31, 2010) — President John F. Kennedy’s special counsel, adviser and legendary speechwriter. President Kennedy once called him his “intellectual blood bank.”

With Ted Sorensen’s recent death, my generation lost its last link to that era. Whether it was intentional or accidental, the challenge to “ask what you can give to your country” derived from ancient Athens and the dawn of the republican ideal. For those who bequeathed the idea of self-government 2500 years ago had one central idea: to protect the rights provided by a democracy, citizens had a duty to participate in the public affairs of the republic.

This idea was central to the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders. They knew if the duty of participation faded and everyone looked out only for himself and herself the American Republic would not long survive.

So, the memory of the Kennedy era is much more than mere nostalgia. It is at the core of who we Progressives are, who we as a Nation proclaim ourselves to be, and what we as a People believe our principles to be.


It is also at the core of my disillusionment and sadness every time I hear the thoughts of contemporary Sarah Palins and Rand Pauls broadcast — and hailed. -spf


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