I don’t have a clear memory of the two speeches that we are celebrating this week, Eisenhower’s farewell and Kennedy’s inauguration. I do remember the Kennedy inauguration however, reading about in the New York Post as a precocious five year old, asking my mom what the term “president-elect” meant, and slowly beginning to understand the meaning and nature of the political world, a realm of people and things somehow connected to me but
outside of my immediate experience. Everyone said Kennedy was young, though this is hardly self-evident to a five year old, but since the one thing a five year old knows is that he is young, I thought a young president was a good thing.
There have been a number of interesting articles this week about Eisenhower’s farewell address, how it has its roots in the “merchants of death” controversy in the 1930s, and how, if we really needed reminding, that Eisenhower was not opposed to the military, or to military contractors as such, or to the expansion of the American military, which went from something like 300 nuclear warheads to about 10,000 (I think) during Ike’s eight years. But he came of age professionally in the smallish interwar army, at a time when there was a clearer distinction between the domestic and the foreign than prevailed during the Cold War, and this division, I think, is what he wanted the country to maintain.
Kennedy’s (or the late Ted Sorensen’s) injunction to ask what you can do for your country became the dominant cliché of the early 1960s, and had as its greatest legacy, perhaps, the Peace Corps, managed by the late Sergeant Shriver. Fifty years later, there is a corrosive skepticism towards all governmental actions and activities, except of course in the one area Eisenhower set out for skepticism, the role of the military in American life, and its abetters in private industry. And if there is any idealism left in this country, we are regularly told that the only way to cultivate it is to separate it from the taint and contamination of government. The sad thing about the state of the nation in January 2011, is that is it impossible to imagine Obama, or any president, delivering either of those addresses today, at least without generating loud guffaws of incredulity.