November 22 marked 53 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas by an embittered Marxist named Lee Harvey Oswald.
Historians generally agree that he left three great legacies to his country:
- The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty;
- The Apollo moon landing; and
- The Vietnam war.
But there was a fourth legacy–and perhaps the most important of all: The belief that mankind could overcome its greatest challenges through rationality and perseverance.
Kennedy demanded timely, reliable information about national and international issues. He speed-read several newspapers every morning. He nourished personal relationships with reporters-–and not for entirely altruistic reasons.
These journalistic relationships gave Kennedy additional sources of information and perspectives he felt he could not get through government agencies.
When giving speeches, Kennedy–a 1940 cum laude graduate of Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts in Government–never tried to hide his education. Nor did he talk down to his audiences.
Republicans, on the other hand, have made appealing to the ignorant and uneducated a centerpiece of their political campaigns.
During the 2016 Presidential campaign, real estate mogul Trump famously said; “I love the poorly educated.”
Trump may love “the poorly educated,” but he didn’t want to join them. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics.
And for all his notorious bragging about himself, Trump didn’t share this achievement with his audiences.
During the 2012 Presidential race, Republican candidates seemed to value ignorance as a prime requirement for entering the White House.
Texas Governor Rick Perry showed similar pride in not knowing there are nine judges on the United States Supreme Court:
“Well, obviously, I know there are nine Supreme Court judges. I don’t know how eight came out my mouth. But the, uh, the fact is, I can tell you–I don’t have memorized all of those Supreme Court judges. And, uh, ah–
“Here’s what I do know. That when I put an individual on the Supreme Court, just like I done in Texas, ah, we got nine Supreme Court justices in Texas, ah, they will be strict constructionists….”
And former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin rewrote history via “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”:
“He warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and, um, making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that, uh, we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.”
Actually, Revere was warning his fellow Americans about an impending British attack–as his celebrated catchphrase “The British are coming!” made clear.
Republicans have attacked President Obama for his Harvard education and articulate use of language. Among their taunts: “Hitler also gave good speeches.”
And they resent his having earned most of his income as a writer of two books: Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope.
As if being a writer is somehow subversive.
In that sense, Obama is a “throwback” to John F. Kennedy, who was similarly gifted with language as a writer and orator.
Kennedy was perhaps the last President to convince most Americans that they could overcome their problems through reason and open-mindedness.
White House painting of JFK
At American University on June 10, 1963, Kennedy called upon his fellow Americans to re-examine the events and attitudes that had led to the Cold War. And he declared that the search for peace was not futile:
“Some say that it is useless to speak of peace or world law or world disarmament….But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief.
“It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable–that mankind is doomed–that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.
“We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.
“Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.”
Today, politicians from both parties cannot agree on solutions to even the most vital national problems.
On November 21, 2011, the 12 members of the “Super-Committee” of Congress, tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in cuts in government spending, threw up their hands in defeat.
At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke with aides about a book he had just finished: Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, on the events leading to World War 1.
For him, the book’s most important revelation was how European leaders had blindly rushed into war, without thought to the possible consequences.
Kennedy said that he did not intend to make the same mistake. Having read his history, he was determined to learn from it.
And he did, for the world escaped all-out nuclear war.
When knowledge and literacy are attacked as “highfalutin’” arrogance, and ignorance and incoherence are embraced as sincerity, national decline and collapse lie just around the corner.