The Fog of Camelot
Around the State
"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 in the United States government in that hour of our nation’s need.'” President John F. Kennedy trumpeted this clarion call to a new generation in his inaugural address, Jan. 20, 1961.
Kennedy added a phrase which resonates through history; “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Unfortunately, the optimistic and challenging spirit of this acclaimed speech has become far rarer in modern America. Today’s society would be relatively unrecognizable to the men and women of the Great Depression and WWII, who sacrificed and suffered for the benefit of their compatriots. I do not exclude myself from this dismal observation; I often contemplate if I have been willing enough to sacrifice my time, energy and resources for others.
The electricity and enthusiasm the country felt in 1961 mirrored how the American people had triumphed over the misery of the 1930s and '40s and risen to become a global power. Our country was soaring and had risen to a power in its adolescence, unsure but loaded with ability and promise. We were energetic as a nation -- having benefited from almost a decade of growth and prosperity after the Korean War had subsided. Suburbs had sprouted across the American landscape. The GI Bill had worked miracles by creating access to higher education never seen before in any country. We had begun to find ways to heal the stain of racial animosity and division – a task that took much longer than it should. The foundations of liberty for all had been laid and finally the country had begun to focus on what ‘liberty and justice for all’ truly meant.
When a relatively young, new generation, handsome, articulate president stood before the world on the Capitol steps, taking the spotlight and setting the stage, offering a challenge to the succeeding generation to offer oneself in service to America, it seemed as if a new morning had arrived. It was a new day in world history, one with hope and promise and filled with both challenges and opportunity.
As I entered my second decade of life, things began to change and with these changes the optimism of a new Camelot, projected that January day, began to fade. I began to experience weekly duck-and-cover drills, watching newsreels of atomic blasts. I sat in a field along 27th Avenue in north Dade, watching miles of truck convoys ferrying troops to Homestead. We lived in fear of missiles from Cuba and threats from the shoe-slamming Khrushchev. My teen years were filled with watching CBS Evening News. In early November 1963, the news was filled with the assassination of the president of Vietnam and his brother, with suspicion arising that somehow the U.S. had played a role. Then, three weeks later, shots rang out in Dallas and like most I spent days riveted to the new hot medium of television, seeing Oswald shot in a police garage live and then watching days later as the funeral entourage passed before thousands live and millions on TV, carrying the body of the president who, just a brief period in time before, had spoken those inspiring words from the Hill. I was in 7th-grade and I began to hear and learn the names of people like Henry Cabot Lodge and Lyndon Johnson. I began to know more about a small country on the other side of the world than I did other states in our own country.
The optimism of the inauguration had been replaced with the despair and anguish of real life. Assassinations of leaders were not just occurring in distant lands, they happened here, too, and with a frequency that unsettled the sanctity we had enjoyed. I could say that innocence was lost then, but it wasn’t really lost, as reality had just been uncovered. The rest of that decade was filled with assassinations of public figures, riots in the streets, hundreds of thousands killed in a land so far away, and our cities set ablaze as the simmering racial issues began to boil.
However, much good came from the turmoil of the 1960s. Washington began to be more responsive to the public mood, freedom began to mean something to huge segments of our population who had never felt truly free, and information became more available to all, not just a select few. But with all that, there was a loss of innocence and optimism. The fervor of a new Camelot had become lost in the fog of history and the call to service issued by newly-elected John F. Kennedy was but an echo of times past.
We have grown cynical as a nation and rightly so. Our leaders have betrayed us in more ways than I can count; leaders from each major party who have failed to exhibit the right stuff that serves as examples of what any of us might become. We grew up with the notion that anyone could become president of the United States, and with that notion we failed to see that it was not the president who mattered, it was us. Each of us as individuals, focused on our duty to serve our country in myriad ways, knowing that our best interests laid in fulfilling our individual destinies through a commitment to God and country, family and freedom. Our challenge is to find new pathways of service, bringing new energies and optimism and dissipating the fog that has enveloped us all.
Dr. Moore is the president and CEO of the Independent Colleges & Universities of Florida.