Last Thursday was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, and while the anniversary did not go unmentioned, it got less attention than I expected. I suspect that those of us who can remember that snowy day — why do we schedule our great national outdoor ceremony for a day that is as likely as any to be the coldest of the year? — are inclined to overestimate the hold that Kennedy has on Americans five decades after he took the oath of office.
Two events just before that anniversary fortify that conclusion and snap the links between us and President Kennedy. On Tuesday, Sargent Shriver died at age 95. This Kennedy in-law never attained elective office as the three Kennedy brothers and assorted offspring did, but he achieved something as important, or more so.
As the first director of the Peace Corps and working with his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver as head of Special Olympics, he created the cultures of two quintessentially American institutions, both with international reach.
Both embody a similar principle, that people — seemingly ordinary people and people who are disabled — can achieve more than others imagine. Peace Corps volunteers and Special Olympics athletes are assigned mundane tasks and end up with a genuine sense of accomplishment. This is “earned success,” which my American Enterprise Institute colleague Arthur Brooks identifies as the key ingredient of happiness and personal fulfillment.
Both institutions are a combination of liberal generosity with conservative accountability. To have shaped just one of them successfully would be a major achievement. Shriver shaped two.
The other event de-linking us from the Kennedy years was the announcement on Wednesday by Sen. Joseph Lieberman that he would not run for re-election in 2012. Lieberman’s political career began in his freshman year at Yale, the year during which John Kennedy was elected president and inaugurated. For his senior thesis, Lieberman wrote a biography, later expanded into a book, of John Bailey, the longtime Connecticut Democratic chairman and Kennedy’s choice as Democratic National Committee chairman.
The book is admiring but not fawning, and at least occasionally critical — a risky enterprise for a young man from a far-from-prominent family who was obviously eyeing a career in Connecticut Democratic politics. And was not waiting in line. In 1970, Lieberman challenged state Senate Democratic leader Edward Marcus in the primary and won, with the help of, among others, a Yale law student named Bill Clinton.
Lieberman ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 1980, was elected state attorney general in 1982 and 1986, and in 1988, with the help of conservative icon William F. Buckley, upset liberal Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker.
Lieberman’s strong support of military action in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and in Iraq in 2003 and after enraged many Democrats, and he was beaten in the Democratic primary in 2006. He turned around and ran as an independent and, with no serious Republican nominee, was elected to a fourth term.
Evidently he could see no way forward in 2012. As he said, “The politics of President Kennedy — service to country, support of civil rights and social justice, pro-growth economic and tax policies, and a strong national defense — are still my politics, and they don’t fit neatly into today’s partisan political boxes anymore.”
That analysis stands up to scrutiny. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill,” Kennedy said 50 years and four days ago, “that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
In fulfilling that promise, Kennedy dispatched American troops to Vietnam, with a tragic outcome. Four years ago, many Americans expected, and at least a few relished, a similar outcome for our enterprise in Iraq.
But George W. Bush doubled down with his surge strategy, and Lieberman provided critical support for it in the Senate, with far happier results.
John Kennedy’s inaugural, like Sargent Shriver’s institution-building, does not fit the partisan template of today’s Democratic Party. Kennedy’s words come closer to resembling those uttered by another American president, who delivered his first inaugural from the West Front of the Capitol 30 years ago last Thursday, Ronald Reagan.
As Shriver’s death and Lieberman’s retirement suggest, Kennedy’s heritage is now national and historic, not contemporary and partisan.