Joe Biden: Picking up the torch of John F Kennedy
Donald Trump says ‘we will be back in some form’
But it’s not disgraced outgoing president Donald Trump. Sixty years ago today, on those same steps, John F Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States, delivering an inspirational inaugural address that changed America. “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you,” he said. “Ask what you can do for your country.” Addressing the global audience, JFK continued: “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
At under 14 minutes and only 1,355 words, JFK’s address was one of the shortest yet most memorable in the history of US presidential inaugurations.
It enshrined Kennedy’s vision of an America governed by values, dedicated to ending poverty, disease, tyranny and war, a strong nation unafraid to negotiate with adversaries, meeting challenges demanding sacrifice for generations.
It served to unite the country, set the stage for Kennedy’s Camelot – a reference to the idealistic court of Arthurian legend, which is how his presidency is now seen – and emboldened the nation to pursue its better angels.
Six decades later, and with much of that dream still unfulfilled, Joe Biden now carries the torch for the inaugural ambitions of the president who helped shape his vision for America.
“During my adolescent and college years, men and women were changing the country – Martin Luther King, Jr., John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy – and I was swept up in their eloquence, their conviction, the sheer size of their improbable dreams,” said Biden.
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Those dreams took flight on a sunny but freezing winter’s day on January 20, 1961, as snow lay deep around Washington, DC.
Looking tanned and healthy despite a hidden litany of ailments, 43-year-old Kennedy removed his coat to project youthful vigour as he took the oath of office sworn on his family’s 110-year-old Bible before a shivering crowd of 20,000.
Just as Biden now faces the Herculean task of uniting a deeply fractured nation, so JFK sought to unite the country after winning the popular vote by the narrowest of margins.
As Biden must confront Russian cyber-aggression and election interference, so JFK ascended to power amid the Cold War with the Soviet Union, trailing the USSR in the space race.
After years of Trump turning his back on the world’s problems and putting “America First”, Biden is expected to follow Kennedy’s bid to win foreign allies by addressing global poverty and opposing dictatorships.
It will be interesting to see if he borrows some of the most memorable lines from Kennedy’s inauguration today.
“Civility is not a sign of weakness,” said JFK, proposing a rapprochement with the Soviet Union. “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
Urging peace, he called the oft-maligned United Nations “our last best hope,” and urged America to join with its allies and enemies in a “grand and global alliance” against the “common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
America’s efforts to outstrip the USSR in the nuclear arms race were aimed at achieving weapons superiority only to be certain “beyond doubt that they will never be employed,” he said.
But Kennedy made clear that America was not weak, or afraid to fight for universal freedom.
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Yet JFK recognised that his high ideals could not be achieved overnight. “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days,” he said. “Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
In this, he was prophetic. JFK’s precepts were tested the following year when the Soviets put nuclear missiles on Cuba, only 90 miles from American soil, bringing the world to the brink of Armageddon, until Kennedy forced the weapons’ withdrawal.
His own life was cut tragically short by an assassin’s bullet in November 1963 at the age of 46, followed by the murder of Biden’s other icons: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F Kennedy.
JFK’s aspirational vision of America was embraced by millions. Many joined the newly formed Peace Corps aiding the Third World’s poorest. Others fought for civil rights and racial equality at home.
JFK drove the space programme that in 1969 put Americans on the Moon, reasserting US technological supremacy and national pride. But Kennedy – and his successors – often ignored his inaugural pledge for America to support foreign nations’ independence.
Much as the US decried Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, America repeatedly interfered in foreign elections, and intervened against communist regimes and dictatorships.
Kennedy presided over the doomed Bay of Pigs attack to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, worked to unseat Guyana leader Cheddi Jagan and supported the ouster of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. America went on to intercede in Chile, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Panama, Libya, and wherever it saw its interests threatened.
In today’s America poverty, disease and inequality remain intransigent foes.
Many presidents since Kennedy have sought to embody his inaugural ideals, but none has been so opposed to them as Donald Trump. The outgoing president turned America’s political divide into a yawning chasm, ignored domestic woes, flouted democratic norms, and embraced authoritarian demagoguery.
Following closely in Kennedy’s footsteps, Biden will take the presidential oath of office today, swearing on his 127-year-old family Bible. Like JFK, Biden is of Irish American Catholic heritage, both raised in deeply religious homes.
Both men suffered personal tragedies that imbued them with empathy for the suffering of others: JFK lost his brother Joe in the Second World War and sister Kick to a plane crash, while Biden’s wife and young daughter were killed in a car crash, and son Beau later died of brain cancer.
JFK saw the world pushed to the brink of nuclear destruction by the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, while Biden faces his own dystopian catastrophe as Covid-19 has killed almost 400,000 Americans and continues to ravage the nation. Biden inherits an America that is sicker, poorer and less respected than six decades ago.
The nation cries out for an inspiring national vision, and the new president could do worse than look to JFK’s inauguration for his unifying call to service, and a path to peace and prosperity.
Novelist John Steinbeck wrote shortly before JFK’s inauguration of a “vacancy in the national soul”. His words might still apply to the America of today.
In 1961, the nation looked to Kennedy to point their way, and today his speech still speaks of hope for a better, braver America.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place,” said JFK, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
Biden has to hope that the torch left by Trump doesn’t burn America to the ground.
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