Levees Not War
Infrastructure. Environment. Peace.

“We Cannot Fail to Try”

11/22/11

A Break from “Hell No You Can’t”

”We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.” John F. Kennedy, July 15, 1960

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Every year about this time we set aside our JFK assassination conspiracy books and turn to some of the late president’s classic speeches (written in collaboration with Theodore C. Sorenson, his gifted counselor and speechwriter who died about this time last year).

There are many gems to choose from, such as the acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, the beautiful 1961 inaugural address that ranks (as he meant it to) with Lincoln’s and FDR’s, the great call for peace at American University in June 1963, or his televised address to the nation that same month to announce his proposed civil rights bill.

“The New Frontier Is Here”

Last year on the anniversary of his assassination we quoted from the great commencement address at American University in which President Kennedy called for an end to the Cold War and the arms race. This year we present some excerpts from his 1960 nomination acceptance, better known as the “New Frontier speech,” where then Senator Kennedy spoke to an outdoor crowd of 80,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

We were pointed to the New Frontier speech by rereading a column by Bob Herbert titled “A Gift from Long Ago” published in the New York Times last November (Herbert is now a distinguished senior fellow at the progressive think tank Demos). After enduring this long and disspiriting year of political impotence, seige warfare, and hostage-taking by well-paid representatives in Congress peddling more tax cuts for the rich and more austerity for everyone else, what appealed to us was Herbert’s argument that “Kennedy’s greatest gift was his capacity to inspire.” So, first, some quotations from “A Gift from Long Ago,” and then selections from the New Frontier speech.

Bob Herbert, “A Gift from Long Ago”
“Kennedy declared that we would go to the moon. Chris Christie tells us that we are incapable of building a railroad tunnel beneath the Hudson River.”

Kennedy’s great gift was his capacity to inspire. His message as he traveled the country was that Americans could do better, that great things were undeniably possible, that obstacles were challenges to be overcome with hard work and sacrifice.

I don’t think he would have known what to make of the America of today, where the messages coming from the smoldering ruins of public life are not just uninspiring, but demeaning: that we must hack away at the achievements of the past (Social Security, Medicare); that we cannot afford to rebuild the nation’s aging infrastructure or establish a first-class public school system for all children; that we cannot bring an end to debilitating warfare, or establish a new era of clean energy, or put millions of jobless and underemployed Americans back to work.

Kennedy declared that we would go to the moon. Chris Christie tells us that we are incapable of building a railroad tunnel beneath the Hudson River.

. . . we’d do well to pay renewed attention to the lofty ideals and broad themes that Kennedy brought to the national stage. We’ve become so used to aiming low that mediocrity is seen as a step up. We need to be reminded of what is possible. . . . 

What Kennedy hoped to foster was a renewed sense of national purpose in which shared values were reinforced in an atmosphere of heightened civic participation and mutual sacrifice. That was the way, he said, “to get this country moving again.” 

His voice was in sync with the spirit of the times. Americans were fired with the idea that they could improve their circumstances, right wrongs and do good. The Interstate Highway System, an Eisenhower initiative, was under way. The civil rights movement was in flower. And soon Kennedy would literally be reaching for the moon. 

Self-interest and the bottom line had not yet become the be-all and end-all. 

. . . While the myriad issues facing the U.S. have changed and changed again since Kennedy’s time, the importance of being guided by the highest principles and ideals has not. We are now in a period in which cynicism is running rampant, and selfishness and greed have virtually smothered all other values.

You can say whatever you’d like about the Kennedy era and the ’60s in general, but there was great energy in the population then, and a willingness to reach beyond one’s self. 

Kennedy spoke in his acceptance speech of a choice “between national greatness and national decline.” That choice was never so stark as right now. There is still time to listen to a voice from half a century ago. 

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John F. Kennedy to the Democratic National Convention, July 15, 1960

[ click here for video ]

“I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision”

I think the American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack. The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high—to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future. . . . 

. . . the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook—it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security. 

But I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. . . . It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past. . . . 

But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age—to all who respond to the Scriptural call: “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed.” 

For courage—not complacency—is our need today—leadership—not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously. . . . 

For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand on this frontier at a turning-point in history. We must prove all over again whether this nation—or any nation so conceived—can long endure. . . . 

Can a nation organized and governed such as ours endure? That is the real question. Have we the nerve and the will? . . . . Are we up to the task—are we equal to the challenge? Are we willing to match the Russian sacrifice of the present for the future—or must we sacrifice our future in order to enjoy the present? 

That is the question of the New Frontier. That is the choice our nation must make—a choice that lies not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort—between national greatness and national decline—between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of “normalcy”—between determined dedication and creeping mediocrity. 

All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world looks to see what we will do. We cannot fail their trust, we cannot fail to try.

[ end of speech ]

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JFK and the Unspeakable

“John Kennedy’s story is our story, although a titanic effort has been made to keep it from us. That story, like the struggle it embodies, is as current today as it was in 1963. The theology of redemptive violence still reigns. The Cold War has been followed by its twin, the War on Terror. We are engaged in another apocalyptic struggle against an enemy seen as absolute evil. Terrorism has replaced Communism as the enemy. We are told we can be safe only through the threat of escalating violence. Once again, anything goes in a fight against evil: preemptive attacks, torture, undermining governments, assassinations, whatever it takes to gain the end of victory over an enemy portrayed as irredeemably evil. Yet the redemptive means John Kennedy turned to, in a similar struggle, was dialogue with the enemy. When the enemy is seen as human, everything changes.”

—James W. Douglass, from the Preface to JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters

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For a generous sampling of President Kennedy’s speeches, we recommend the book + CD Let Every Nation Know: John F. Kennedy in His Own Words by Robert Dallek and Terry Golway (2006). Each of 34 speeches is introduced, but transcripts are not provided. For transcripts, see the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, under the tab “JFK.”

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1960 convention photograph by Garry Winogrand (1928–1984): John F. Kennedy, Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, from the portfolio Big Shots. Museum of Modern Art collection.

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