John W. Eyster: Looking back at John F. Kennedy



Monday was John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK)'s 100th birthday! My reflections were enriched by the fact that I was studying and living in Washington, DC during JFK's presidency from January 20, 1961 through his assassination on November 22, 1963 and funeral.

I met JFK summer 1959 when I took a group of youth from Chicago, IL to Washington, DC for a week-long study seminar on significant public policies based on the group's study of several issues through 1958-1959. That seminar was a precursor of what became WASHINGTON SEMINAR for AP US Government & Politics students at Parker High School with the field study in March 1973. Preparing for that field study, I had written to Senator John F. Kennedy requesting a Q&A for the group. I was really surprised when I got a response agreeing to that Q&A. I told the youth group, “Senator Kennedy is going to run for President.” I made that assertion on the basis that U.S. Senators do NOT accept meetings with groups from outside their own state UNLESS they are planning to run for national office. We all know that Senator Kennedy announced he was a candidate for President on January 2, 1960. He ran against President Richard Nixon and was elected on November 8, 1960 in a very close election. Kennedy was Inaugurated as President on January 20, 1961. I was there.

I was profoundly inspired and motivated by President Kennedy's Inauguration Address. I would assert that was one of the most influential speeches I've experienced in my long-life. I submit that most Americans who heard that Inauguration Address in 1961 remember the key phrases:

1 – “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

2 – “Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”

3 – “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

4 – “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here 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.”

IF you do not know President Kennedy's Inaugural Address, I urge to you hear and see it. You can use this link to YouTube.

It was President Kennedy's challenge to ALL AMERICANS, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” which has echoed in my heart and mind as well as, in truth, haunted me since I heard it on Friday, January 20, 1961! It challenged and motivated me to complete my Bachelor's degree in International Relations from the School of International Relations and continue to earn my Master's of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary both on the campus of The American University, Washington, DC. After earning my Master of Arts in Teaching at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, I became a social studies teacher at Parker High School, Janesville, WI. I shared with Principal Hugh Horswill my vision of a WASHINGTON SEMINAR political science field study for my students. Principal Horswill – “The Silver Fox” – became the key advocate for the development of that field study seminar so that in March 1973 I took five Parker students in a station wagon donated by Fagan Ford to Washington, DC for a week-long field study.

The challenge and motivation from President Kennedy has been the foundation of my career-long commitment to democracy/civic education through my professional engagements through the decades. I traveled to Washington, DC with WASHINGTON SEMINAR for 30 years – through 2002. When my former student and the AP US Government & Politics teacher at Milton High School, Val Crofts developed his own version of WASHINGTON SEMINAR with his creative master teacher skills and commitment, I was privileged that he invited me to be in D.C. at the same time as his Discovering Democracy field study group. I was again this year privileged to be in DC at the same time as Val Crofts' Discoverng Democracy's 8th annual field study. The group demonstrated the high quality of academic research which made their Q&A's with Senators Baldwin and Johnson and House Speaker Rep. Ryan and Rep. Pocan very meaning and appreciated by the members of Congress. Each student carried on numerous interviews delving into the significant public policy issues which had been researched. Last Thursday, 5/25, I was again inspired as I talked with the DD VIII students about their research issues at their Fair – each student had a portfolio along with her/his research paper to share with the general public. I was very impressed by their abilities to articulate their learnings and their personal stance on the selected issue. KUDOS to Val Crofts and his DD VIII students!

I celebrate the life of John F. Kennedy who brought his wonderful positive attitudes to our U.S. Presidency. I am among Americans who truly wonders what would have been OUR FUTURE as WE THE PEOPLE of the U.S. IF President Kennedy had been able to complete his term as well as, perhaps, complete a 2nd term. Or, was it providential that President Kennedy's assassinated launched a telling movement in our American political culture to fulfill many of his visions? Would the Civil Rights movement have gained so much ground? What about the launching of President Johnson's “Great Society”? What about the War in Viet Nam? What IF?

I read with appreciation Charles Lane's editorial opinion column, “On JFK's 100th birthday, Trump repudiates his legacy” in the Washington Post. If you want to read it, click here.

I noted his assertion, “One of the things Kennedy asked of Americans was to break with their protectionist past once and for all. He spent much of 1962 campaigning for the Trade Expansion Act, a tariff-slashing measure he called “the most important international piece of legislation . . . affecting economics since the passage of the Marshall Plan.” Congress passed the bill with bipartisan support, and JFK signed it Oct. 11, four days before he learned Soviet missiles were on Cuba.

“Indeed, but for the missile crisis, free trade might loom larger in JFK's legacy. Familiar institutions such as the U.S. trade representative, “fast-track” negotiating authority and trade-adjustment assistance owe their existence to Kennedy's law, which he presented as an act of enlightened self-interest, economic and geopolitical.”

Responding with leadership for the west with the Soviet conflict, Lane notes, “Communist hopes for a trade war between these two great economic giants would be frustrated — and Communist efforts to split the West would be doomed to failure, Kennedy said. ”Our efforts to maintain the leadership of the free world thus rest . . . on our success in this undertaking. Economic isolation and political leadership are wholly incompatible.'”

“As for the impact on the United States, he argued, most companies and workers would benefit, due to increased exports and 'healthy competition' from imports.”

Lane observes, “If that argument sounds familiar, it's because a version has been offered in favor of free trade ever since, most recently in President Barack Obama's ill-fated campaign to sell the Trans- Pacific Partnership as a job-creating counter to Chinese influence in Asia.”

As I reflect on President Kennedy's challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” I'm wondering whether WE THE PEOPLE of the U.S. have shifted to Trump's slogan, “Ask what your country can do for you, not what you can do for your country.” GREED! Unethical behaviors! Make promises, but take care of the wealthy! What is the future for WE THE PEOPLE of the U.S.?

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