John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Irish writer Frank O’Connor

Good morning. It’s Friday, May 29, 2020, the day of the week when I reprise a quotation intended to be instructive or inspirational. Today’s comes from John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th U.S. president, born on this day in 1917.

Actually, I’ll cite three Kennedy quotes, each one of them relevant in their own way to the national challenges we face today. The first is inspired by the joint venture Elon Musk and NASA have embarked upon to get America back in the space race. With Minneapolis on fire and so much else screwed up here on Earth, you ask: Why bother with outer space? Well, that question was posed in President Kennedy’s time, too, and he supplied an answer.

In an iconic speech at Rice University outlining his goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, Kennedy invoked the spirit of famed explorer George Mallory who, when asked why he desired to scale Mount Everest, replied simply: “Because it’s there.”

“Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it — and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there,” Kennedy said. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

Among those who study political communication, John F. Kennedy’s Sept. 12, 1962 Rice University speech about the space program has a deserved place in the pantheon of presidential oratory. I have no quarrel with that judgment — it’s first-class rhetoric — but my favorite glimpse into JFK’s thinking about space came more than a year later, after NASA astronauts John Glenn and Wally Schirra had become household names.

On Nov. 21, 1963, in what would prove to be his last official act as president, Kennedy presided at the dedication of the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base outside San Antonio, Texas — a base named for a World War I-era pilot who was killed during a biplane training accident the year John Kennedy was born.

In his dedication remarks, the president came across alternately as a science fiction-reading futurist and a Hibernian poet. To explain his profound curiosity about the heavens, he invoked the imagery of Irish writer Frank O’Connor, who told about walking the countryside in County Cork as a boy. If he and his friends came across an orchard wall that seemed too high to risk scaling, O’Connor wrote, they’d toss their caps over the wall — leaving them no choice but to climb over.

“This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space and we have no choice but to follow it,” Kennedy said. “With the vital help of this aerospace medical center, with the help of all those who labor in the space endeavor, with the help and support of all Americans, we will climb this wall with safety and with speed — and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side.”

For many presidents, invoking an artist such as Frank O’Connor would be a reach. Not for JFK. He often counseled his fellow Americans that they had much to learn from literature and the arts.  In a 1956 speech at Harvard, his alma mater, then-Sen. Kennedy said puckishly that the world would be a better place if “more poets knew politics” — and vice versa.

At Amherst College a month before his fateful visit to Texas, President Kennedy spoke directly about the value of the arts to a free people. “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty … an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft,” he said on Oct. 26, 1963, while receiving an honorary degree from the school.

“It may be different elsewhere,” he added. “But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may.”

And those are your quotes of the week.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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