Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Bob Stannard, a former lobbyist, who is still an author and musician. This piece first appeared in the Bennington Banner.
He was young, only 43, which to me seems really young right about now. Yes, the times were certainly very difficult, but were they more difficult than they are right now? It does seem as though the country was much more volatile back then than it is today.
I’ve just returned home from watching the independent film, “Letters to Jackie.” In the days and months after President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald (who was subsequently assassinated by Jack Ruby), the first lady received 800,000 letters from people all around the world and from all walks of life expressing their condolences. This is one of the most poignant and touching films I’ve seen in a long time.
I was 12 when President Kennedy was assassinated and this film served to remind me just how much of the past I had forgotten. Kennedy felt in his heart that he had to do something to address this nation’s bigotry and to ensure that all Americans are treated equally in the eyes of the law. Reliving this now at the age of 62 I think how remarkable John Kennedy was.
Where and when did we go wrong? When did we stop thinking big, or for that matter stop thinking at all? It seems as though today America is incapable of thinking big. We’re held hostage.
We had a Civil War over this issue and it should have been put to rest 100 years before John Kennedy was sworn in as president, but it wasn’t. In my lifetime people of color could not eat in white restaurants. They could not drink from the whites’ water fountains. They had to ride on the back of the bus. They could not attend schools for white people.
Get your head around that, kids. Those of you of my children’s generation can’t relate to this, but it was not that long ago that America was two countries, one for whites, and one for blacks, and the country for blacks was not a very nice country.
There was a time when the governor of one of our states stood on the steps of his state’s university in a symbolic gesture to stop two black students from attending the college. President Kennedy ordered the military to escort these kids into this school.
What kind of courage did it take for these two kids to walk through a crowd of hateful, jeering bigots? What kind of courage did it take our president to risk his presidency for little or no gain so that those who had been kept held down could maybe have a shot at a better life? It took moral conviction and unmatched determination to see those convictions through. President Kennedy made a lot of enemies, but he was able to parry them off with charisma and a million dollar smile. Behind that smile was resolve. He would not be dissuaded from doing what he thought was right. As a result Kennedy gained enormous respect internationally and was able to build consensus here at home.
Kennedy was convinced that space travel was something we had to do. Failure after failure with rockets blowing up on their launching pad, Kennedy was finally able to send a manned space flight to the moon. He was not deterred by failure. Failure seemed to make him stronger.
Where and when did we go wrong? When did we stop thinking big, or for that matter stop thinking at all? It seems as though today America is incapable of thinking big. We’re held hostage. President Obama could take a lesson from President Kennedy. Obama should remain true to his core. It’s probably too late for him to do so. He’s been hamstrung by people who are serving in Congress who believe to their core that it is in their best interest to shut down our government, ruin our credit rating and create havoc to get their way. Some people serving have forgotten the famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” We’re seeing politicians pandering to the most irrational among us so that they can maintain their elective offices. Many of their constituents may very well be the descendants of those who would prefer to see some Americans go to the back of the bus.
It’s long past the time for leadership. It’s long past the time for a display of courage of one’s convictions. We need to release the leghold trap that has stifled the advancement of big ideas that America at one time was noted for. Leadership like this must come from the highest office in the land. However, it can come from anywhere.
We’re seeing it here in Vermont. Gov. Peter Shumlin ran for office declaring his support for change in Vermont’s energy future. He came into office with a vision and determination to see that vision through. He’s taken quite a beating, in some cases even from those who support him, but he has not been shaken. He’s been elected twice and would be elected again, because people still do admire leaders who lead.
Fifty years ago both of my kids would have to have hidden their families, because they are of mixed race. We’ve made progress, but there’s much work yet to be done.