Thursday, January 20, 2011

Celebrating the Promise of 'the New Frontier'

Fifty years ago today, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as America's 35th president.

I was far too young to remember what many talk about as the mood of that particular day and what it portended. I am among those whose era is colored by that mood. At that time, the youngest Chief Executive in our country's history ushered in an age of hope, of possibility and optimism, which influences the collective mindset of many of us who lived during that time. It was a time when America had problems, but a time when people (especially young people) thought we could do something about those problems. It was a time when America had promise, and it was a time when we felt as if we could all make a contribution to the fulfillment of that promise. It was an age in which the call to engagement was a call to realize a vision in which we could all fill out the outline of our character by working together to change our world.

The soaring rhetoric of Kennedy's inaugural address and the inspiration it provided for those who were there and those of us who have lived with its signature phrase: 'ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country', fashioned a new notions of citizenship and patriotism. notions in which prosperity and the nobility of public service were not in tension with one another, but complemented each another. Such lofty notions are not quite as in vogue as they were on that day or as they seemed to be in the next 1000 days. But those notions are the only ones that will help us realize what it means to be community as well as country.

The celebration and recognition of JFK's inaugural also commemorates an unfinished era. Cut short by an assassin's bullet in 1963, it fills us all with sadness that we didn't come to see the fruition of all of the promise of that January day 50 years ago. And it is sad. But perhaps in dwelling on that sadness we miss the larger point: the 'New Frontier' was not to be of his making, it was to be what we made of it. We could only realize as much of that promise as we would own. If Kennedy's New Frontier and King's 'Dream' are not our 'New Frontier' and our 'Dream', then its not celebration - it's nostalgia.

Kennedy's challenge on January 20, 1961, less eloquently stated is simple - 'This is what you can become...if it is what you want.'

It's a question that begs an answer still...

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