“I Served the United States Government in That Hour of Our Nation’s Need”

50 years ago today, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. I was only 7 years old, but I still remember the day. Our teacher, Peggy McMillan, told us something terrible had happened and turned on the large gray radio that sat at the front of our classroom. She knew history was unfolding and, like all good teachers, wanted her students to learn and remember.

We remember President Kennedy for many things – his World War II service in command of PT-109, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Marilyn Monroe, his flaws, his soaring rhetoric, and his tragic death. In his Inaugural Address, he said “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.” The most famous line from the speech, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” still resonates with those who choose a career in public service.

President Kennedy was a great advocate for public service and public servants. Things have changed a lot since January 20, 1961, and even more since November 22, 1963. With today’s climate that seems to encourage attacks on civil servants for political gain, I thought it might be worthwhile to remember President Kennedy’s first State of the Union Address. Just 10 days after his inauguration, he said

“I have pledged myself and my colleagues in the Cabinet to a continuous encouragement of initiative, responsibility and energy in serving the public interest. Let every public servant know, whether his post is high or low, that a man’s rank and reputation in this Administration will be determined by the size of the job he does, and not by the size of his staff, his office or his budget. Let it be clear that this Administration recognizes the value of dissent and daring–that we greet healthy controversy as the hallmark of healthy change. Let the public service be a proud and lively career. And let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and with honor in future years: “I served the United States government in that hour of our nation’s need.”