“Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You….”

Posted on January 20, 2011


“Ask what you can do for your country.”  John F. Kennedy spoke the unforgettable phrase that defined a generation in his inaugural address 50 years ago.  On that bitter cold morning, poet Robert Frost* contributed to the proceedings so that two of New England’s sons stood as the last light of a sense of ethics in family, work and treatment of others – of original thought and creativity.

There was a confidence that anything could be made better by setting your mind and a course toward it.  Kennedy gathered “the best and the brightest” from academia around him to bolster the efforts at improvement of the national conscience and status.  A whole extended Kennedy family filtered through the White House and assumed positions in the administration.  There was some feeling about so much family involved in an administration but the outcomes were so favorable that it was soon dismissed.  People either loved or hated the Kennedys but it could not be denied that they were a force with which to reckon.

But just as soon as it started, it seemed that it all ended and with it a sense of promise and of hope.  Never again were we inspired to believe that we could all gather together and achieve such lofty goals.  If a bullet could touch something so cherished, what else was at risk.  We as a people were never the same again. The idealistic American died and the starkly questioning and disbelieving American was born.  No longer did we trust the government to do good as the Viet Nam war escalated and we all felt caught in an undertow drafted or not.

Forever after Kennedy, the welfare state grew exponentially.  Now there is no question that the state owes you a living and good health.  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been framed and are hanging on the wall like relics.  The huddled masses still come to these shores but they find a disheartened people who are riding a whale of an economy to the bottom of the sea.

Once there was a kind of Camelot.  Now not many remember it.  No more sons of New England that were made of the stuff that made them exemplars to an entire nation of hard work and devotion to belief systems that are now fragmented and clouded in controversy.  We dance with the stars, watch parts 2 through 12 of “original” films, suffocate imagination with video games that leave nothing to imagine.

We need jobs and health care but first we  need to learn how to sacrifice to rebuild.  That is what rebuilding takes.  We can rebuild only if we can somehow reconvene on some kind of common ground where we can again be inspired and not divided – where Wikileaks can’t invade our ideals with information about our leaders that detract from core issues.  We need to find that clearing in the woods and again ask “what can we do for our country.”

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For John F Kennedy’s inauguration as President of the United States Robert Frost wrote a new poem entitled, “Dedication”. Like many others he conceived the new president as young Lochinvar, the perfect combination of spirit and flesh, passion and toughness, poetry and reality:

“… The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young amibition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.”

But the poet was old (87) and he couldn’t see the words because of the sun’s glare that bright, cold January day. The poem’s newness to him and his unfamiliarity with and uncertainty about the way it went caused him to stumble uncertainly with his voice and tone and he gave up. Instead he fell back on an old one he knew perfectly, and in the most splendidly commanding of voices, recited it impeccably:

~ The Gift Outright ~

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia.
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

~ Robert Frost; 1874-1963 ~