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,
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? …