In writing a book on the events of 1963, I made the glaring discovery, not uncommon when chronicling history, that time causes one to see events differently than those who participated in the moment.
In June 1963, John F. Kennedy gave three of the most influential speeches of any U.S. president in the 20th century. Moreover, no other commander in chief experienced a month of meaningful oratory like Kennedy in the span of 17 days.
On June 10, Kennedy gave the "Peace speech" at American University. He became the first U.S. president during the Cold War to speak about the Soviet Union in terms of our shared humanity.
"For in the final analysis, our most basic common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal," Kennedy said.
This speech led to the signing of a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in October and placed the United States and the Soviet Union on a path of détente.
The next day, he spoke to the nation, elevating the cause of civil rights to one of national importance. He declared on that evening, "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution."
Kennedy's words along with televised high-profile events, led to the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.
Two weeks later, Kennedy stood at the Berlin Wall, and in a nine-minute address, where he famously said "ich bin ein Berliner" spoke to the hearts of West Berliners. He touted the virtues of freedom over the totalitarianism symbolized by a wall that delineated East from West.
But my analysis of Kennedy comes with the added benefit of hindsight. When he gave the "Peace Speech" it was less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was more focus on preventing a re-enactment of those 13 days in October 1962 than any future prospects of a test-ban treaty.
Likewise, his address on civil rights did not bring about immediate change; and the Berlin Wall did not come down until 1989. But there is no denying his influence.
Fifty years later, in the most recent CBS poll, President Barack Obama has a job approval rating of 46 percent. But 46 percent compared to how the public feels about Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, makes the president's approval look like presidents Kennedy and Reagan at their apex.
In 2009, the nation was hemorrhaging jobs, bogged down in two wars, and the economy was at its worst since the Great Depression.
It is almost lost on the current discourse that the Dow Jones was at 7,949, when President Obama took office, but at the time of this writing it sits at 15,671.
The domestic automobile industry was on life-support. In 2009, General Motors was trading at $1 and Ford was $2.22, today they are at $36 and $17.50 respectively. This is due in part to the president's bailout, which saved an estimated 3 million jobs.
The two wars that the president inherited, though not perfect solutions, have been placed on a path of reduction opposed to escalation.
But the America of JFK was one of optimism, while America today is marred in cynicism.
What else could explain Wall Street greed, an oil spill caused by a major oil company, the widening gap between have and have not, stagnating wages, and not have a liberal response if cynicism were not pervasive?
Cynicism explains how wanting the Affordable Care Act to fail could be viewed as a plausible political position to hold.
We have serious issues that warrant immediate attention, but cynicism keeps us stagnant. Maybe things will look different in 50 years.
Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.