America seemed younger when John F. Kennedy was president, full of optimism and hope, sunlight and promise. Despite anxiety about the Cold War, anything seemed possible — going to the moon, challenging our young people through the Peace Corps and making social progress here at home. The president articulated a powerful appeal to our better nature.
He expressed it in his inaugural message: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Fifty years have not been kind to this vision. Instead of coming closer together at home, we are pulling apart. The flames of local tensions around the world are reaching deep into our society. Washington is in disarray. Here in Maine, angry rhetoric too often replaces reasoned dialogue. We have been blown off the clear compass course JKF charted for us during his brief moment in our history.
Has the vision that he shared with us disappeared forever, or can we find it again? I think we can if we insist that our elected leaders take control of the helm and rediscover the principles underlying our unique American experiment in self-government.
Do we want to leave our children an America where the wealth of the top 1 percent is greater than the wealth of the bottom 50 percent? Do we want to have our elections bought and sold by PAC money? Should we have corporations defined as citizens to the detriment of real people?
There is no way we can know what JFK’s solution would be to today’s problems. But his own words, many of which were brought back to us in the anniversary programs recently, suggest to me his approach would be for us to:
— Choose our words to emphasize our communality, not our separateness. He repeatedly avoided words that demonized adversaries and used language that treated them with concern and compassion.
— Build a nation committed to the principle that all Americans have an open door to opportunity and an education that will allow them to achieve their full potential, for themselves and for all of us.
— Broaden our view of health to include not just affordable health care but prevention, creating an environment in which good health flourishes — clean water and air, freedom from hunger, and secure housing for all our citizens.
— Acknowledge that government service is an honorable calling, and those who spend their careers teaching, protecting and assisting others are just as worthy of respect as their fellow citizens who build businesses and provide jobs.
Others may read JFK’s words differently, but this is what I hear when I relive once again that moment when possibility, and commitment and concern for each other, provided the inspiration needed to overcome the challenges each of our generations, in turn, must face.
Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, is a practicing physician.