Saturday, August 26, 2006

Roots of Starfleet

And so it did begin. Kennedy’s first official act was to increase the amount and upgrade the quality of surplus food for the poor and unemployed. He challenged Congress to pass a higher minimum wage, and a system of medical care for the aged (which became Medicare.) He began the Alliance for Progress, a partnership with Latin America to address the root causes of social unrest, such as poverty and inequality.

He began the Peace Corps, the program that best symbolized his intentions and the Kennedy style—pragmatic compassion, active participation, youth and enthusiasm. The Peace Corps caught the national imagination, and Gene Roddenberry was proposing a “youth corps” TV series, saying in a memo, “Unlike shows which are offered purely as escape entertainment, this one involves certain moral and philosophical issues on which I have strong feelings.”

What Kennedy represented, or even personified, could be defined as what Arthur Schlesinger called the Politics of Hope. Schlesinger noted Emerson’s division of “the party of the past and the party of the future, between the party of memory and the party of hope.” Though this essay predates the Kennedy years, Schlesinger was a White House advisor when he published in his book with that title in 1962. He was redefining American liberalism for the 1960s as the belief “that society can and should be improved, and that the way to improve it is to apply human intelligence to social and economic problems.”

Kennedy advocated a future that included an independent role for the imagination and the arts. The arts also were an outlet for the Kennedy glamour and mystique, especially when the President and his beautiful First Lady, Jacqueline, hosted artists and writers at the White House. “…the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may,” Kennedy proclaimed. “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

But Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the future was best symbolized in America’s suddenly vibrant leap into space. The shock of Sputnik led to humiliation in 1957, when the first U.S. space rocket staggered up before crashing back and exploding on the launch pad, in full view of the world’s television sets. The Eisenhower administration finally devoted funds and priority to a program some prominent members had previously and publicly mocked. The forsaken Orbiter program devised by Werner von Braun was suddenly revived, and resulted in the first American satellite launched in early 1958.

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