Times West Virginian
“Ask not what your country can do for you ...”
There are few phrases in the history of America that are as iconic as the one spoken by the late John F. Kennedy during his Inaugural Address on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 1961.
“... Ask what you can do for your country.”
It had been a tough campaign road for the Massachusetts senator. While the Kennedy family was well known and established in New England, it wasn’t clear whether JFK would have broad voter appeal. He set to change the pundits’ minds, especially in West Virginia. The candidate visited a coal mine, knocked on doors, had one-on-one conversations with the people of the Mountain State — real conversations about needs and problems they faced in their day-to-day life.
Despite all the obstacles in his way the day he stepped into West Virginia, he convinced the voters who were very conservative and went to their Protestant churches each Sunday that a rich Roman Catholic liberal was the man who needed to lead this nation. Why? Because he didn’t just ask for a vote, he asked what he could do to help West Virginians.
And it was the Mountain State who helped propel him to victory in the Democratic primary in May 1960. It was the voters of West Virginia who proved that Kennedy had broad voter appeal. It was the hardworking coal miners and steelworkers and factory employees who were among the first to believe in Kennedy’s New Frontier.
Weeks later, he would deliver that next iconic speech at the Democratic Convention.
“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled dreams. ... Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”
Today marks the 50th anniversary of a very dark day in America’s history, a day when hate and rage took the life of a president who in three short years had more of an impact on his party and his nation than those before him. He challenged the country to end systematic racism through integration. He challenged American scientists to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He challenged lawmakers to aid the poor and the unemployed. He challenged the federal government to mandate companies pay fair wages to workers. He asked that the nation support higher education.
“All this will not be finished in the first 100 days,” he said on that January day of his inauguration. “Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
No one could have known that his own life would end less than three years later, that right around the 1,000-day mark his life would be cut short by an assassin’s bullet.
But we know that his vision has lasted even to this day. We know that he inspired a generation to serve in the 1960s, and today still inspires the youngest of our citizens through all he accomplished during his too-brief tenure as president.
At Arlington Cemetery, the Eternal Flame burns where Kennedy’s body is entombed. It is a physical representation of the torch that Kennedy asked us all to carry the day he took office.
“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.
“And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
“My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
“Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on Earth God’s work must truly be our own.”