Fifty years ago this month Massachusetts U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th president of the United States.
As I was reading some of the quotes that Kennedy had made both during his campaign and after his election, one thing became very clear — times have changed. Now I know it may not be fair to compare such a gifted speaker with some of today’s candidates, but the contrast is striking. I think that it shows not only a decline in the ability of candidates to express themselves, but it speaks to a gradual decay in the use of language.
Most Americans are familiar with the words President Kennedy spoke during his inaugural speech on Jan. 20, 1961. “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Of course many Americans are also familiar with the words that Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell said during her just concluded, unsuccessful campaign: “I am not a witch… I am you.”
Kennedy’s words have been often repeated and seared into our collective memories, and somehow I think that O’Donnell’s words will also be remembered for a long time.
Kennedy once stated: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” Wise words relevant some 50 years later. Nevada Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle, debating incumbent Democrat Harry Reid about Social Security, chose these words: “Man-up, Harry Reid.”
I get the feeling that Angle’s words lack a little of Kennedy’s diplomacy and statesmanship.
In the summer of 1963, President Kennedy visited the Berlin Wall in West Berlin. He spoke to the residents of that divided city. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.'” When Joe Miller, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alaska, was asked about illegal immigration he stated: “The first thing that has to be done is secure the border…East Germany was very, very able to reduce the flow. Obviously other things were involved.”
Other things such as a wall and soldiers with weapons!
As this session of Congress comes to a close, it will end a 60-year span of a member of the Kennedy family holding an elected office in Washington. From JFK to Bobby to Teddy, they always kept our attention, often through the spoken word. Who can forget Bobby Kennedy stating: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why…I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
In this time of so much talk of tax breaks for the wealthiest of Americans, we should not forget President Kennedy’s words: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic Convention spoke these powerful words: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”
Yet with all these words being crafted so skillfully and being delivered by men who studied the language, who understood the power of the spoken word, who read and recited poetry not only for its beauty but with the understanding that every word, every phrase, could capture the hearts and minds of its listener, still we are subjected to Frank Caprio. It was Rhode Island Democratic gubernatorial candidate Caprio who said: The president can take his endorsement “and really shove it.”
Times have changed.
Jim O’Loughlin is a former Dracut selectman who writes an occasional column for The Valley Dispatch and The Sun.