Americans have naturally gazed backward in time these past few days in honoring historic anniversaries. On Nov. 19, it was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. On Nov. 22, it will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a moment still etched in the living memory of millions.
It is that personal link to the heartbreak in Dallas, Texas, in 1963 that now compels special attention. President Kennedy was not a great man frozen in time in antique photographs, but a recognizably modern figure, charismatic in the new age of television. Yet unlike the historical giant Lincoln, Kennedy’s place in the pantheon of presidents is still being debated.
What is beyond debate is the sense of overwhelming tragedy — the aching loss, the dashing of national hopes — that attended his death. The question of what it meant then is clear. What it means now is less so.
Between the stories of where ordinary people were on that extraordinary day, the retelling of the tragedy over and over again, the recitation of theories, the examination of the salient facts and the historical minutiae, looking back has been easier for us than looking forward.
Yet if anniversaries are to mean more than a great reminiscence, looking forward has to be the point. The past must give up its lessons in service of the future. In this, Kennedy’s own words tell what we were then and hint at what we could be again.
From the moment of his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961, the vision of his presidency was set on the future. On that day, he summoned a new generation to hold the torch of American ideals. In a now famous challenge, he said, "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."
Famous words, but forgotten today amid partisan bickering that puts party ahead of country every time, with political gridlock the inevitable result. If we are to truly honor Kennedy, we should first honor his words.