Sunday, June 05, 2005

In November Kennedy won the presidency by a narrow margin, but the country seemed to change overnight. On a frigid day in Washington in January 1961, he delivered his Inaugural Address. People today might think that the entire speech consisted of the words "Ask not..." Even historians seem to emphasize only the warnings to the Soviet Union that America would be resolute. But at the time, there were many parts of the speech that were noticed.

"The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life."

"Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.."

"Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce."

He pledged support to the United Nations, "our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace..."

To the world's poor he pledged help, "not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

He asked his fellow citizens to join him in "a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."

"All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

And so it did begin: the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress in South America, raising the minimum wage, narrowly passing the first medical care for the aged funding (now known as Medicare.) There were terrible terrors along the way: the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Berlin blockade in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when the world came as close to thermonuclear Armageddon as it ever had. But Kennedy learned quickly, and in the Cuban crisis he kept his cool, kept his options open, and managed to end the crisis with imagination and intelligence, and not a little craftiness and knowledge of human nature.

He brought imagination and intelligence into the public arena, and suddenly it was stylish to be smart. Kennedy's press conferences were a revelation of erudition and wit. The emphasis on brainpower in the Kennedy government provided a new legitimacy to the life of the mind. Suddenly the egghead was in, and the intellectual was sexy.

Kennedy was also the first President since Teddy Roosevelt to promote physical fitness, and the Kennedys were often photographed sailing (an avocation GR would share) and the Kennedy clans' touch football games became legendary.

Kennedy made perhaps his boldest move just months after his Inauguration. Since the Soviet Union shocked America by orbiting the first artificial satellite in 1957, it had remained ahead of U.S. efforts in space. In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. The U.S. succeeded in only a sub-orbital manned flight in May, when Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Nevertheless, that same month, President Kennedy pledged that the U.S. would land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth within the decade.

"Now it is time to take longer strides---time for a great new American enterprise," Kennedy said. He called for new funds and a new dedication, for the goal could only be met if "every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space."

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