What We Do for Our Country

Article excerpt

Arthur Schlesinger is authority for the fact that no Kennedy speech went through as much redrafting as his inaugural address. And no sentence was more worked-on than, "Ask not what your country can do for you ...." The theme had appeared in campaign speeches around the country in such forms as, "We do not campaign stressing what our country is going to do for us." The extra work on that line paid off in an inspiring call to service beyond self that can still draw us here a generation later.

President Kennedy and I were of the same generation. Our generation had known national service in World War II. At a time of confrontation with the Soviet Union a summons to serve the nation had a familiar ring. His speech dwelt more with global dangers than domestic traumas. But, he added, in his commitment to human rights, the words, " ... at home and around the world."

At home, it seemed natural that our national government should guide and mobilize our energies. This was the era of the Peace Corps and its domestic counterpart, VISTA. The era of the Johnsonian Great Society whose roots Kennedy had planted. The era when teachers, doctors, lawyers, were enlisted by government to serve those in need. Over the heads of state and local government, the federal government reached out to stimulate community action in the ghetto and it gave support to the activists, the preachers, and students who were making the civil rights revolution.

But then the Great Society and the idea of looking to government for leadership foundered on the Vietnam War and its offspring, Watergate.

Grizzled veterans of Watergate will remember that symbol of disillusionment, Gordon Strachan, the young Haldeman assistant caught up in the White House conspiracy. He testified before the Senate Watergate committee about how he'd been led astray. And when asked what he would advise other young men planning careers in Washington, he said, "My advice would be to stay away."

Mr. Strachan is now a lawyer in Park City, Utah, and a board member of the Salt Lake City Olympic Organizing Committee. In preparing this speech, it occurred to me to ask whe ther he's still turned off by government service. He didn't return my call.

Among those disturbed by the "stay away" mentality was Mortimer Caplin, Kennedy's IRS Commissioner and himself an exemplary public servant. In a speech in 1975, Mr. Caplin said not all of Strachan's generation was "as easily beguiled by power as he was." He quoted Edmund Burke's observation, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." And he asked, "What would the state of our nation be if the able and good withdrew?"

Alas, we're on the way to finding out. The Reagan-Bush Iran- Contra scandal followed the Nixon scandal and was, in turn, followed by the Clinton impeachment scandal. One effect of the scandals has been oppressive disclosure requirements for job candidates and inquisitions into past histories that drive many away. Alienation from government is a clich, a settled fact, with many convinced government is more a problem than a solution.

What does it mean that, for the second successive year, the armed forces, although offering lavish sign-up bonuses, have been unable to reach their recruiting goals? What does it mean that voter turnout in national elections keeps declining? What does it mean that a recent Wilson Center study found Americans of mixed minds about government - wanting its services but suspicious of its power?

Does this mean Kennedy's summons to serve the country would fall on deaf ears today? …