Since the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has filled the airwaves, the printed media and the Internet with nostalgia for the slain president, I decided to ride the wave publish one more blog on JFK (see also my JFK Assassination Plot: 50 Years in the Making), this time quoting a speech he gave at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on April 27, 1961. It has a great deal of America’s self-mythology in it, which the Camelot President was great at voicing to inspire Americans about their role in the world and their hopeful future. Somewhere in the last day or so I heard a quote which I tried to find on the world wide web but didn’t succeed and I don’t remember where I heard it or who said it. The quote was something like: “America is the first nation on earth which believes it was born perfect but whose task is to constantly improve itself.” That is why our nation has the split personality of permanently enshrining the ideals of the constitution (a conservative principle) and yet ever pushing into the future with the hope of an even better tomorrow. We uphold the ideal of the past (Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and find new ways of applying it to the present to shape the future. The conservatism demands constant creativity to apply it to every new situation which arise in the present. It creates the strange situation where both liberals and conservatives deny they are establishment but both lay claim to be the true heirs of the political tradition. The federal government is given the sacred trust to protect the rights of citizens and yet the citizens don’t trust the federal government or anyone else to do it.
Though history shows Kennedy didn’t live up to his own idealism (think Bay of Pigs and also his personal sexual escapades), he did in speech express our ideals well. In this speech we see some of these ideals which we need to reawaken in our country today. The press is the only business protected by the Constitution. The world is dangerous, but a secret and oppressive society is not the answer; rather, a free and open society is the correct response. Disagreement, dissent and debate are not the signs of a society fragmenting into irreconcilable factions, but a firm footing for democracy. Critics of government policy are not disloyal; instead, they are an important resource for improving the general welfare of the people. Government has its proper role as defined by the Constitution to serve the citizenry and to uphold America’s ideals, but government is not infallible and can embrace a means toward an end in which the means and/or the ends are simply wrong. America may have been born perfect (at least in our self mythology), but neither the nation nor its government nor its citizenry always behave perfectly. We have to be honest enough to point that out and recognize that truth. You can listen to Kennedy delivering the speech at JFK: Presidency and the Press or read the text of his 1961 speech below:
“The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and secret proceedings.
We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions.
Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.
That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control.
And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.”
For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence–on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day.
It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.
Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed.”
No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary.
I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.
I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers– I welcome it.
This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.
Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed– and no republic can survive.
That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy.
And that is why our press was protected by the First (emphasized) Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution– not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.
This means greater coverage and analysis of international news– for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news as well as improved transmission. And it means, finally, that government at all levels must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security…
And so it is to the printing press–to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news– that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.”
President Lincoln is credited with freeing the slaves in America. Yet we too can become slaves to prosperity – deciding that wealth is the ultimate and highest good and that we must sacrifice some or all freedoms to preserve the nation’s prosperity and wealth. Or maybe we come to realize that we need to put some limits on government or business in order to preserve the freedom and independence of every citizen and the general welfare of the nation. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. So too the Constitution was made for man and not man for the Constitution. The Constitution exists for the good of the people. It is the people the Constitution and the government are meant to serve: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. As Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address (whose 150th Anniversary was also celebrated this month):
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.