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Americans are gazing backward this week to honor historic anniversaries. Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a moment still etched in the living memory of millions.
That personal link to the heartbreak in Dallas in 1963 compels special attention. President Kennedy was not a great man frozen in time in antique photographs, but a modern figure, charismatic in the new age of television. Yet unlike the historical giant Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Kennedy’s place in the pantheon of presidents is still debated.
What is beyond debate is the sense of overwhelming tragedy — the loss, the dashing of national hopes — that attended his death. What it meant then is clear. What it means now is less so.
Between the stories of where ordinary people were on that extraordinary day, the recitation of theories, and the examination of salient facts and historical minutiae, looking back has been easier for us than looking forward. Yet if anniversaries are to mean more than a great reminiscence, looking forward needs to be the point.
The past must give up its lessons in service of the future. In this, Mr. Kennedy’s words tell what we were then and hint at what we could be again.
From the moment of his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961, the vision of his presidency was set on the future. He summoned a new generation to hold the torch of national ideals: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Famous words, but they are forgotten today amid partisan bickering that puts party ahead of country every time, with political gridlock the inevitable result. If we are truly to honor Mr. Kennedy, we should first honor his words.