WASHINGTON — Fifty years ago Thursday, President John F. Kennedy told the world that “the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans” whom he challenged to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Caroline Kennedy told The Associated Press that she has been thinking over her father’s oft-quoted inaugural speech on Jan 20, 1961, when he proclaimed that Americans “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
“I think he really expanded and redefined our idea of what it means to be a citizen — that everybody has something to contribute and everybody has something to give back to this country that’s given us so much,” Caroline Kennedy said. “It’s not just an obligation, but it’s really a rewarding experience and really a belief in government and politics as a noble profession.”
Kennedy joined members of her father’s administration, civil rights activists, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and members of the first class of the Peace Corps — which JFK established — to mark the 35th president’s legacy at the Capitol on Thursday.
Speaking at a ceremony in the Capitol’s rotunda, Vice-President Joe Biden said Kennedy’s cause was to bring America back “to what it should be.”
“His call to service literally, not figuratively, still resounds from generation to generation,” Biden said.
The celebrations come as the Kennedy power in Washington has faded. For the first time in 63 years no one with the Kennedy name is serving in elected office. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island left the U.S. House this month.
Caroline Kennedy said she wouldn’t be surprised if someone in her family returned to national politics — but that it probably wouldn’t be her. She flirted with a 2008 Senate bid in New York but bowed out.
Instead, she is announcing a new “Ask Not” public service campaign with Jimmy Fallon aimed at youth as part of a series of events to reconnect the Kennedy legacy with a new generation. The spots featuring Fallon will air on Viacom, Comcast and CBS television channels to promote the new website JFK50.org.
Caroline Kennedy hasn’t given up on politics, though. While many young people place a high value on volunteering and community service, she said politics has somehow become less attractive to them. And she wants to change that.
“We hope they’ll see that it’s a continuum and you need the political process to solve these problems that they are already working on so hard,” she said.
She also echoed President Barack Obama’s call in a much lauded speech last week to set an example for young people with the nation’s political discourse that has turned vicious at times. In his inauguration speech, JFK reminded people that even as the Cold War raged, “that civility is not a sign of weakness.”
The anniversary will mark the opening of special exhibits at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, featuring a handwritten draft of Kennedy’s inaugural address and the family Bible on which he was sworn in. Such items also can now be found online as the library has digitized many historical records and artifacts.
Also Thursday, about 100 members of the Kennedy family with gather in Washington at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It is opening three weeks of performances that will recreate moments from the Kennedy White House, nicknamed “Camelot.”
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma will perform Thursday night, along with Paul Simon, the American Ballet Theatre and others.
The National Symphony Orchestra will perform a new composition, “Remembering JFK (An American Elegy),” by Peter Lieberson. As part of the composition, Morgan Freeman will read from Kennedy’s famous speeches, including his inaugural address and his call for world peace at American University.
Richard Dreyfuss, who has started his own initiative to restore civility to politics, will narrate subsequent performances with words from Kennedy.
“John Kennedy really did extend the reach of the American people and said, like Lincoln said in a way, that our reach is farther than our grasp — and we should aim high,” Dreyfuss said, adding that no president since has challenged the public in the same way.
“In a way, JFK was the high point of the American dream,” he said. “In order to go to the moon and back, all we did was say we could — and we did.”
Part of that optimism came because the Kennedys believed the American culture had come of age and could lead the world, Caroline Kennedy said.
JFK’s White House became known for its embrace of the arts. Caroline said she can remember as a young girl seeing dress rehearsals for ballet and musicals staged in the White House, though she can’t recall the famous performance by cellist Pablo Casals.
“I think I was probably already put to bed when he started to play,” she said.
Yo-Yo Ma will recreate that performance Jan. 25. Opera singer Denyce Graves will perform a tribute to singer Grace Bumbry’s recital in the Kennedy White House on Feb. 1. And the American Ballet Theatre, a favourite of Jackie Kennedy’s, is performing through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. Other events will feature performances by children and disabled artists.
It seemed like a natural fit as the centre’s largest tribute to its namesake said Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser.
“They created a White House, which was in some sense a haven for intellectuals and for artists and for scientists,” he said. “They celebrated intellectual accomplishment, and I think that’s something worth celebrating.”