Clare Higgins: Citzenship and sacrifice, 50 years after JFK’s loss
NORTHAMPTON — I grew up in an Irish–Catholic family in post-World War II America. I had four brothers and two sisters; almost all of us two years apart. We played together. We fought together. And probably 10 times a day someone would cry out, “That’s not fair!” My father had only one response to that complaint. “In the words of the late, great John F. Kennedy, ’Life is unfair.’”
My father, a veteran of the war in the Pacific, went to college on the GI bill. He was a Democrat, from a family of Democrats who believed in FDR, the New Deal and the social Gospel of the Catholic Church. And, of course, he was a fervent supporter of John F. Kennedy. JFK was a man of his time; the first man born in the 20th century and the first Catholic to be elected to the White House. He was a mirror for the hopes and dreams of many of my father’s generation.
I’ve been thinking about my father, and those hopeful men of mid-century America. They had won the war. Now, one of their own had been killed. The president who challenged the nation to “ask what you can do for your country” had his life taken in service to the country.
And I’ve been thinking about that Kennedy quote that my father said so many times to all of us. Kennedy said it at a press conference in March 1962. He had ordered a call up of reservists to be sent to Berlin and Vietnam. It was part of a longer answer when challenged on the fairness of this decision. The full quote is; “There is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco. It’s very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair. In many ways.”
Kennedy knew the unfairness of life. While he had a privileged upbringing, he lost his brother and sister before they reached their 30th birthdays and he was in physical pain for much of his adult life. He knew the horrors of war and the anguish of losing a child. And he was fully aware of the advantages he had and often said, “of those to whom much is given, much is required.” He was not a perfect man. He had personal failings and he made some decisions (including sending advisers into Vietnam) that were simply wrong. Even with those faults, he left us with the ideal that politics and government could be a force for good in our lives.
While Kennedy acknowledged the inequities in society, he understood them in the context of our responsibilities to each other. In a speech at Vanderbilt University just six months before he was killed, he said, “All Americans must be responsible citizens, but some must be more responsible than others, by virtue of their public or their private position, their role in the family or community, their prospects for the future, or their legacy from the past.”
Today we often talk about our rights but we increasingly neglect our responsibilities to each other. Government is seen as a bundle of services, instead of as a shared responsibility of all citizens — a responsibility that might require sacrifice. Cynicism is up and voter participation is down. There are a lot of reasons for this, including the incredibly corrupting influence of big money in politics, the rise in voter suppression laws in an increasing number of states and the hollowing out of the middle class. But just because the work is hard doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done.
Life is unfair. And yet, we must go on. We must engage in the struggles of our time, just as our parents engaged in the struggles of their day. And we can remember the words of John F. Kennedy, “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
Clare Higgins of Northampton, the city’s former mayor, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.