Fifty years ago last Thursday, January 20, 1961, on a bitingly cold day, with the sun shining in a cloudless blue sky, I sat in the stands at the U.S. Capitol and heard newly sworn President John F. Kennedy deliver his inaugural address.
I remember little details of the tableau: Clouds of breath swirling over the participants' heads in the reviewing stand, the First Lady's tall dome of a hat that matched her beige outfit, the poet laureate Robert Frost's sudden sun-induced blindness causing him to cease reading his poem to commemorate the inauguration, and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower's calm dignity as he peacefully transferred power. But mostly, I remember President Kennedy, coatless in the frigid air, as he delivered his inaugural address.
Kennedy personified youth, vigor, and dedication to country when he rose to deliver his remarks. He was the youngest man ever to be elected president, succeeding one of the oldest men, and he was the first president born in the 20th century. He had served in World War II as a PT-boat commander in the South Pacific, courageously saving his men when a Japanese destroyer rammed his boat. During the presidential campaign, he had promised a "New Frontier" for America, calling upon "a new generation of young Americans" to get involved.He reiterated that call to action in his address, which was only 1,364 words and took just thirteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds to deliver. His words are now as familiar to us as any in our collective history:
ask not what your country can do for you --
ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world:
ask not what America will do for you,
but what together we can do
for the freedom of man."
I remember the tidal wave of applause that engulfed the president as he ended his remarks. I wonder if he realized the profound effect of his speech and particularly his call to service.
Last Wednesday, I once again had the pleasure of hearing Kennedy's inaugural address. Yet this time, I was not seated on a backless wooden bench with a woolen scarf tied around my head, but in a chair among several hundred dignitaries, friends, and Kennedy family members in the magnificent U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
The occasion was the "Ceremony in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Inaugural Address of President John F. Kennedy," and it began on the stroke of noon, the exact time that the Kennedy's inaugural ceremonies started so many years ago.
The ceremony was formal, but touching in its clarity. Many of the speakers, old enough to remember, chose to mention where they had been when they heard Kennedy's rousing speech – mostly on "grainy black-and-white television sets" – and how it had influenced their lives. Each chose a portion of the speech to illuminate, and many chose to speak about public service.
Following Caroline Kennedy's gracious words of thanks, we again heard Kennedy's inaugural address. "Ask not what you can do for your country..." was the only line to receive applause from the Rotunda audience. I closed my eyes and let my vision of that 50-year-old event float back into my consciousness. I felt gratitude that my husband's and my life had crossed paths with the Kennedys and that he had left a private publishing company to serve in the administration.
A reception followed in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. Important historical events associated with the Kennedy brothers are connected with the room, including John's and Robert's announcements to seek the presidency. There, Kenneth Feinberg, chair of the board of the JFK Library Foundation, announced a new website, JFK50.org. Its purpose is to inspire "another generation of young Americans, especially teens, to choose public service."
I went home on a high. During my train ride back to New Jersey, I began to think anew about a problem with which I had been wrestling. A friend had sent me a recent story about the 86 teen pregnancies in one Memphis, TN, high school. It immediately reminded me of the 2008 story about 18 Massachusetts high school students that became pregnant in one year. Whether it was the "Gloucester 18" or the "Memphis 86," the same issues were once again in play: a media frenzy, inadequate sex education, demands for "just say no" sex-ed campaigns, refusals to distribute condoms in high school health clinics, and an overemphasis on teen girls' (not teen guys') role in the scandals.
There's also been talk about whether reality shows like MTV's Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant have a role to play in teen pregnancies.
Some would agree with the New York Times' TV critic who wrote of these MTV shows: "Fear works. It's hard not to believe in a correlation between the recent decline in teenage pregnancies — a record low according to studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and the rise in ratings for reality shows about pregnant teenagers, which are among MTV's most popular programs."
She added: "The premiere of Teen Mom 2 this month drew 3.6 million viewers. The 90 students who are pregnant or new mothers at Frayser High School in Memphis and not in a reality show are probably not watching enough television. No pamphlet or public service ad is more likely to encourage birth control than these MTV tableaus of maternal boredom, fatigue and loneliness."
Others take a different approach. Amherst College Psychology professor Catherine Sanderson, Ph.D., believes that watching a reality show an hour a week doesn't do much to influence young people, who are "unrealistically optimistic" and believe "it can't happen to me." Instead, she says, "opportunities for young people" are the key to preventing teen pregnancy and other social problems.
There is no magic bullet to solving complex social problems like teen pregnancy. I think multiple approaches, including a wildly popular TV series and opportunities for service, can help persuade young people to postpone having babies while they are still teens.
The activities and stories on JFK50.org could offer teens, particularly ones living in poverty, a chance to consider service to their country as a path into the future. The idea of serving a cause bigger than oneself might motivate some teens to think beyond the idea of filling gaps in their lives by having a baby.
In the stirring words of John F. Kennedy, let's propose to a new generation "ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country." We might be surprised by its willingness to respond enthusiastically to the challenge.
ALSO BY SUSIE WILSON