With the current presidential campaign in full swing, I find myself drawn to a speech that President John F. Kennedy delivered at Rice University in Texas 50 years ago. There he proclaimed it our national goal to land a crew on the moon and to return them safely to Earth. He said we would do it by the end of the decade, and on July 20, 1969, that vision became a reality.
I wrote recently that the tragedy of President Kennedy’s death in 1963 lies in what he might have been, not necessarily in his brief accomplishments before he was assassinated. Watching this video only deepens that sense of loss. Even taking into account the help he received in writing the speech, it is masterful and uplifting even today.
Barack, Mitt, et al.: Send us to the moon
My vote for President Obama in November will be less enthusiastic than the one I cast in 2008. Indeed, as we head into a series of debates between the two main candidates, I am saddened by the realization that regardless who wins, we’re unlikely to have the leadership we need to move us dramatically forward.
What if, in Kennedy-esque style, our leading candidates committed their future administrations to doing something bold and visionary? Okay, so we’ve been to the moon and back. But what about announcing that we will conquer cancer or Alzheimer’s by the end of the decade? Or both?! Can you imagine the hope that would inspire?
It sure would be a blessed change. Most of the political rhetoric we hear today is worthless posturing, whether it comes from the candidates themselves, their spin masters, or their advertising teams.
It’s not leadership. It’s absolute junk.
Embracing the intellect
There’s a lesson in the fact that Kennedy gave his speech at a university. Less than a year later, he would give another important address about peace in the nuclear age at American University’s commencement in Washington D.C. Here’s a snippet:
Today, that speech would not be given at Rice University or American University, but more likely at Harvard or Yale or Stanford. (Blame that on our devotion to the U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges and universities.) And it probably wouldn’t have much substance, either. Today, most speeches delivered at universities by leading political figures are eminently forgettable.
If you doubt the reasons for my lament, click to the American University speech excerpt. Listen to what Kennedy says about universities, learning, and public service. And then he proceeds to give an intelligent, substantive policy speech at a university graduation ceremony.
It’s music to a professor’s ears.