Politics is history in the present tense. And this week has been crowded with historic anniversaries that should adjust our expectations upward when it comes to the dark carnival of contemporary politics.
This week we marked both the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inspiring inaugural address and the prescient “military-industrial complex” farewell address by Dwight Eisenhower. We celebrated the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural and the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Whether you are left, right or center, these patriotic anniversaries are a reminder of how good our politics can be — how they can inspire people to become better citizens and work to put ideas into action.
Kennedy’s inaugural address still stands as one of the greatest presidential speeches in American history. Its short, strong sentences and cascading rhythms — courtesy of the late, great Ted Sorenson — retain their ability to inspire. But great speeches elevate and motivate. The inaugural’s lasting legacy was the baby boomers it inspired into a life of civic engagement by spurring them to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Our country has not heard as powerful a call to public service since.
Also in January 1961 was Eisenhower’s farewell address. No one would mistake it for an inspirational speech, but it was one of the wisest and most farsighted presidential speeches.
The old general spoke directly to Americans about a subject he had unique moral clarity to criticize: the “military-industrial complex.”
From his first foray into presidential politics, Ike understood that only he could cut military spending without being called a communist (such accusations were fellow Republican Joe McCarthy’s rabid hobby at the time).
Ike ultimately helped orchestrate McCarthy’s downfall, and he presided over the escalation of the Cold War while ending the Korean War. In his final speech, he talked to his fellow Americans as adults, tackling a complex but very real subject, reminding us again that vigilance is the price of liberty.
Reagan’s self-penned first inaugural address is a classic among conservatives, but it deserves close reading by Americans of all political persuasions. It is a masterpiece of optimism and vision, a Western vision brought to Washington. Reagan offered common-sense articulations of fiscal responsibility: “You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we are not bound by that same limitation?”
And he expressed the conviction that America was going to begin moving again after the malaise and drift of the late ’70s. The symbolism was backed by substance when Iran released the hostages shortly afterward.
King is the only nonpresident honored with a national holiday. Twenty-five years ago Reagan signed the legislation, creating the federal holiday after intense debate in his Cabinet. Now, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become a day of civic renewal and reflection. His speeches are read, and church services offer meditations on the lessons of his life.
But it is also worth remembering that King was deeply controversial in his time: He was called a communist and worse by his opponents — mostly conservative Democrats who wanted to defend segregation with what they called massive resistance.
King is celebrated as a hero across the political spectrum, and his successes belong to all of us now, but let’s not forget the real hate and resistance he met in his lifetime, and listen out for echoes of the same arguments in our time as well.
In the opening weeks of 2011, we have been shocked by violence and responded with calls for civility. The cynics and professional partisans have been lately offering caveats to the effect that politics has always been a nasty business. They quote from the fights between Jefferson and Adams, as if to give the imprimatur of the founding fathers to their next round of ugly attacks.
Sure, politics ain’t beanbag, but that doesn’t mean we should accept the race to the bottom as inevitable.
This week’s historic anniversaries remind us of how elevating politics can actually be — imperfect individuals doing their best to bring about honorable change, citizens working to form a more perfect union.
We should aspire to those heights more often, recognizing that we have the opportunity and the obligation to make great history on our watch.