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Ask Not...

As the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy inauguration was observed this past week, most of us saw--and, one hopes, pondered-- clips and quotes from one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century.

I actually remember seeing Kennedy's inaugural speech on TV. My fourth grade class walked with our teacher, Mrs. Agnes McIntosh, to her home, about three blocks from school. We sat on her living room carpet and watched the ceremony on her black-and-white console television set.

I remember only a few things about the speech: It was as cold in Washington D.C. as it had been on our very frigid walk to Mrs. McIntosh's house--you could see puffs of breath as the President spoke. The speech (and the respite from regular schoolwork) didn't seem to last very long, and none of us wanted to put on our wet boots and freeze our noses again on the walk back to school.

And finally--Mrs. McIntosh loved the President's speech. There was even some covert, semi-horrified debate among the fourth graders about whether she was wiping away a tear (the old grump!) as she sat on her couch and watched. She made a big deal of it, too, by inviting us into her home, and drilling us on Facts About Presidents the whole year (including Millard Fillmore, and his bathtub).

I was a little surprised, this week, to recognize how much of Kennedy's speech was about American's place in the world, and our moral obligation to maintain peace, defend freedom and help our less-fortunate neighbors.


If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Sounds almost socialist now, doesn't it?

Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need -- not as a call to battle, though embattled we are -- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,"² a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
And now the majority party in the House is moving to repeal health care for all American citizens. We have conquered none of the common enemies of man, even in our own country.


In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

Of course, in 1961, colleges were scrambling to quickly train teachers to accommodate the Baby Boom, and put up enough buildings to house the other boom in college degrees. Within a year of that chilly inaugural day, Peace Corps volunteers were serving in Ghana and Tanzania--and 15,000 were in place by 1966. We could do anything, including put a man on the moon. We were America! After that little Sputnik scare, we were on our way to building an educational and scientific juggernaut--to lead the world to peace and prosperity.

So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.

Ah, yes. Civility. In 1961, newscasters and folks in positions of authority were trusted. You couldn't pick your own version of the news, to fit your politics. Kennedy is speaking of negotiating with other nations here, as the newly elected leader of the free world. You don't hear that phrase much anymore. Our incivility has been internalized, and sincerity is for sale.

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Mrs. McIntosh required us all to memorize those lines. In between the spelling tests on Friday and endless multiplication worksheets, we all stood up and repeated "ask not..." until we knew it, cold. She was big on memorization (and making your capital Qs in the approved Palmer-method way--one of my particular faults).

Agnes McIntosh was already an old lady in 1961. (Googling her yields nothing but her name on a 1935 list of "out-county" teachers who taught in unincorporated rural schools.) She taught us that we had an obligation to our great country, to become productive citizens, to live up to our promise and the expectations of our leaders.

I miss Mrs. McIntosh, and teachers like her.

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