*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on January 20, 2021. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
“Masks are bull$#*%! Get off me, man, they do nothing!” The tall guy yelled as the salesperson shooed him out of the store in Aspen, Colorado this past summer. Carrying on from the entryway, he weaponized the engagement by pivoting and projecting his voice toward the crowd in the plaza. He wanted to whip up support.
The language coarsened until we had to shuffle our kids away. Minutes later, we accidentally fell into step with the loud anti-masker himself. Having failed to win supporters to his cause, he’d stomped off along the curb gutter.
At that moment, JFK’s ultimate civic question came to mind: What will we do for our country, now?
Sixty years ago this week, another Irish Catholic former senator from an Eastern state ascended to the presidency after a rough election. President-elect Joseph R. Biden will be the oldest to take the oath (at 78), while John F. Kennedy was the youngest (at 43). Biden’s taken heat for cribbing other politicians’ lines and life-stories. It was said that the “Kennedys quote the Greeks and Biden quotes the Kennedys,” according to the writer Evan Osnos.
While he’s been through the school of hard knocks on proper citation, now would be the moment for President-elect Biden to repackage and repurpose at least three ideas from Kennedy’s January 20, 1961 Inaugural Address.
Written mostly with speechwriter Ted Sorenson, it came in at a slim 14 minutes—1366 words—and it was completely devoid of party politics. Kennedy’s first line dismissed any “victory of party,” but called it instead a “celebration of freedom.” It unified, did not divide, so much so that his opponent in the election, then-vice president Richard Nixon, was noticeably among the first to extend a congratulatory handshake with an authentic (seeming) smile.
This For-All-of-America tone set the beat for the two notes we should tune in to today. Kennedy called on Americans to “struggle against the common enemies of man,” including “disease.” Like Covid-19, diseases truly are the enemy of all mankind. They do not discriminate, they do not distinguish, they do not check for race, gender, or party affiliation. Disease just kills the next human.
President-elect Biden’s post-election remarks indicate he spots this opportunity to come together. To fight back against a microscopic genocidal enemy. Together. To fight back against disease, death, and the fear of both that upends liberty. Together.
Kennedy also believed Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” to preserve liberty. He then issued his immortal 17-word call for Americans, to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” (This repetition in reverse order is chiasmus, an old Greek rhetorical trick. This was Kennedy’s third use of the technique in the speech; he lived up to his brand.)
Six decades on, as a career US Army officer, I can report that sacrificial spirit still lives in our military. Like the Greek ancients Kennedy rhetorically reached for, our modern military holds dear to an interdependent fighting philosophy. The shields we grasp are less to protect ourselves than to protection our comrades and our country.
Wearing a mask in a pandemic is no different. It also is a shield, worn less for ourselves than for our fellow Americans, by protecting others from an unwitting virus-carrier. Masks are the best defense we currently have against a virus that kills worse than any combat Americans in uniform have ever seen.
But not to everyone. Particularly the raging anti-masker my family and I encountered this past summer. He and others like him represent the antithesis of Kennedy’s ideal and raise an uncomfortable question.
What do all Americans owe their country? Not philosophically, but practically. Just pay your taxes? Vote? Is it service of some kind, be it through church or some other voluntary association? Through charitable works? To donate blood on occasion?
My own path, like millions of others, is through military service. To protect the many by the willing sacrifice of the few. It was by choice, but it is a choice that not everyone can or should make. There are many ways of serving others that are different and every bit as noble, and I hope Mr. Biden’s speech finds a way to grapple with Kennedy’s question again.
We need that same non-partisan sprit to unite all Americans against humanity’s common enemy. We need to be called again to serve our country.
If Biden does, I deeply hope that message somehow finds that angry man. And that man remembers who he is, where he is, what our country’s past struggles have gifted him, and that thought enlarges his willingness to sacrifice a little to protect all his fellow Americans.