Because they are hard

President John Kennedy at Rice University, September 12, 1962. Not only would today’s politicians shrink from advocating a public program not involving military invasion, their handlers would not let them speak in a stadium with empty seats.

Lord knows that John Kennedy was far less progressive than he is now given credit for. And despite all the defenses that he was not the one who committed us to the catastrophe that became the Vietnam War, there is no dispute that he was the one who initially led us down that rat hole with high blown talk of saving freedom. In other respects Kennedy was far more timid on things of genuine value, such as civil rights, if there was any bit of old time political resistance to them.

But, boy, could he give a speech (even if he didn’t write them). It’s true that he benefitted from speaking to a population that had not yet incorporated into their neurons the non-linearity that McLuhan warned us about. And he benefitted even more by not having to address a country who has accepted, as our notion of public dialogue, the form of literacy practiced in comments sections of popular websites. As a result, he was able to expect an audience to be able to follow an argument or an image for longer than 15 seconds, and to judge their content rather than spout puerile emotive responses before he was even finished. What changes half a century hath wrought!

John Glenn’s prestige after the round-the-world flight was so great that even the President wanted some of the reflection. Here Glenn sits between the President and General Leighton I. Davis in a parade in Coco Beach, Florida. (Unattributed news photo on NASA website.)

Fifty years ago, September 12, 1962, John Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University in which he announced the national goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Young readers will have no appreciation for how breath-takingly audacious that goal was. The United States had just barely begun its manned space program. John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, a feat that he accomplished only seven months before. When Kennedy spoke, there had only been five American manned space flights in total. And all the technology, particularly in the area of informatics, which we now take for granted, was not even conceived of in that ancient time.

Shortly after James Meredith was admitted, the University of Mississippi erupted in riots. Here on October 1, 1962, riot-control police patrol the Oxford campus. (Special Collections, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.)

In some respects, however, the goal was a rather modest one for the President. When we look back at what real progress this country has achieved in the past half century, it is social change that is most noteworthy. The integration of African-Americans into all aspects of American life, though not completed nor even accepted by all yet, represents the kind of  achievement that most societies can’t accomplish without violent revolution or civil war. The Kennedy Administration was not a major part of that change. In fact, the Supreme Court was considerably more instrumental in promoting racial justic than the Justice Department in those pre-Great Society days. It was only two days before Kennedy’s speech at Rice that Justice Hugo Black, acting as Circuit Justice for the Fifth Circuit, had rejected further applications for stay of the order requiring University of Mississippi to admit James Meredith. It is worth noting that Hugo Black, from Alabama and once a “gold passport” carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, had by this time become far more advanced on civil rights issues than the Kennedy Administration would ever become.

And clearly, adopting the ambitious goals of the space program was highly advantageous to the President as a political matter. Success in technology and science was keenly desired in those days by both Democrats and Republicans (another area where 50 years has seen enormous change). That desire was largely driven by anti-communist impulses, inasmuch as the Soviet Union had not only developed the Bomb but also had beaten the U.S. to the punch with the first successful space launch. In fact, the United States suffered repeated failures in the latter regard after Sputnik. So reaching the moon before the Soviets was a goal with enormous military and geopolitical overtones. And it never hurts an American politician to clothe something in aggressive, militaristic terms. That was, after all, how Eisenhower argued for the interstate highway system.

But here is where the Rice speech is interesting and admirable. Kennedy made the case, not principally for its military value but rather for its elegance. And his speech attempted to match the goal with an eloquence of language.

Kennedy’s eloquence was of a studied type. His speeches never had the internal parallelism or poetry of Lincoln’s best (such as the Gettysburg Address), which harkened back to the late Renaissance English of Shakespeare and King James’s translators. Nor did Kennedy have the rhythmic cadences and controlled climaxes that Martin Luther King was perfecting, which combined the indigenous voice of the rural preacher with the depth of a deep moral thinker. In some ways Kennedy’s speech at Rich showed gimmicky rhetorical tricks. For example:

We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.

The doubling up of the triplicate pattern seems somewhat overdone. And following that by a naked parallelism seems too overtly rhetorical. (Lincoln always had ways to hide rhetorical devices. A brilliant example is hiding a parallelism, inside a metaphor and wrapping it in humor, thus of an adversary: “He dived down deeper into the sea of knowledge and came up drier than any other man he knew.”)

But setting aside minor quibbles (as we should in an era where political speeches have all the eloquence of TV situation comedies), we can see something remarkable in the speech: An appeal to do something because the difficulties of doing it will make us better. Mark this:

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

I was alive to hear these words, but still I find it remarkable looking back that they were said. We live in a time when doing something, even in our own self interest, is considered evil, “socialist,” over-reaching. Voices cry out against science, learning, universities, art, because they are not things that the unregulated “free” market will support by itself. We have come to the point where one reactionary point of view has so dominated our public thought that John Kennedy’s Rice speech would cause him to be labelled a socialist or worse.

Because they are facile. Sarah Palin and Joe Wurzelbacher in Ohio at their first joint rally. Proto-fascism for Dummies™. (Getty Images.)

But I think it is deeper than the Reagan transformation (as our current President sees it). It is not simply a political change. It has to do with the idea of doing something for its own sake, for its difficulty. At one time people actually believed that as a goal. Not a ridiculous sports cliche, but something that people aspired to do in ordinary life. We see that as remarkable today, because we live in an age of shallow wants and quick satiation; a time when commerce has so pervaded our aspirations that we now desire only what the market can easily provide. We would never think to read Milton and Shakespeare “because they are hard.” That is, in fact, the very reason we don’t read them. We have authors who job-rackers can fit into pre-labelled slots in drug stores for our literary edification. We don’t listen to the best of the music of our time whether Elliott Carter or Cecil Taylor, because the market provides us an infinite variety of “indie rock” and even worse. It is no wonder that our elections have come down to meaningless consumer phrases (especially with the money of right wing plutocrats behind much of the advertisements): politics is ready-made into small, unappetizing, easily digestible consumer bites. And this is the only reason that a major party could nominate a man with as little experience, as bereft of ideas and so devoid of scruple as Mitt Romney. The people who understand the consumer mind know for certain that we no longer want something “hard.” We so revolt against it that we will take something “bad” as long as it is “easy.” There can be no other explanation for Macdonalds or Reality TV or the editorial pages of the Washington Post.

So if you want to see such a now curious concept as doing something difficult extolled by a master politician, you will have to see it in low resolution video, because you won’t see a modern politician ever risk such an idea:

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