Kennedy and Obama:
Mirrors of a Half-Century
Translated By Jane Esi Hagan
26 January 2013
Edited by Natalie Clager
Argentina - Clarin - Original Article (Spanish)
Barack Obama, fresh off the dais after giving a fantastic inauguration speech as president of the United States, is seen as the black Kennedy. It is not true that history repeats itself. What repeats itself is the impulse of individuals and societies to repeat history. But that is not the case here.
Nevertheless, there are various common ties that link the imaginations of the two American presidents, separated by fifty-two years of history. Obama is the first person of African-American descent to attain the White House. John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected to that office, the youngest in history and the first born in the twentieth century. The youthfulness of the two, the fresh image of impact, of decisiveness, of humor, of controlled passion, among other traits, also tie one to the other. Despite this image, while Kennedy was ready to put an end to Communism during the Cold War years, Obama continues to fight a difficult war in Iraq, which he promised to end, and he put an end to bin Laden and his followers.
The two presidents faced great challenges, knowing the issues would likely not be fully resolved within their respective lifetimes. “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” stated Kennedy in his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law …until we find a better way to welcome … immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity …Our journey is not complete until all our children … know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm” Obama stated on that frigid afternoon this past Monday in Washington, DC.
The defense of gay rights is the latest. During the Kennedy era the idea of a gay community as is known today did not even exist. Kennedy fought for the civil rights of another community: the black race. It’s difficult to know if Kennedy’s missing this issue ultimately enabled Obama to be in the White House today. However, the truth is that both inaugural speeches, separated by more than a half century, not only outline the general objectives of the Democratic Party, but also seem to have been written by the same author.
The latter is not possible. Kennedy’s speeches were written by Theodore Sorensen, who died on Oct. 31, 2010 and who is said to have constructed the sentences to emphasize Kennedy’s unmistakable Bostonian cadence. Here’s an example. In his first message Kennedy stated: “…the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed…” Obama stated: “This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience.”
The poignant sentence “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war” of Obama’s speech has the unmistakable marks of Kennedy’s style: “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 struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
It’s interesting how such similar speeches were generated within such different epochs. The world has changed much in a half century. What hasn’t changed much are the ideals and goals to achieve: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to well-being, growth, education, to work and to progress, in the words of Obama.
His rousing call to the American people for unity, “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time -- not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.” This synthesizes the most significant sentence of Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy knew very well to whom his speech was addressed. He spoke to a nation divided, a world in crisis living with its hand on the trigger, an American continent drowning in poverty, corruption and tyranny for which he proposed an alliance for progress, and to then archenemy the Soviet Union, with whom within some two years the United States would almost come to the brink of nuclear war.
History will tell to whom Obama’s words were addressed, although the echoes extend to the ears of those who want to listen. On Monday he made statements such as “The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob” and “… a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play” and “… a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune” and “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.” He also stated that “peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice” and that “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
In almost the exact words of John Kennedy, Obama called for unity and progress.
It seems the latter would be impossible without the former.
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