'Ask What You Can Do for Your Country'? If Only

Fifty years after JFK delivered his call to action, the country still quibbles over tax rates and trivia, with only broken transit and dreams to show for it

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When I saw this terrific cartoon by Tom Toles in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago, it struck a raw nerve, not just because I live with the second worst traffic jams in the country but also because the "Ask not" quote has been fresh in my mind.

Last January was the 50th anniversary of my uncle John Kennedy's inauguration and the swearing in of my father as attorney general. I had known it would be an emotional week, full of pride in what they had accomplished and sadness at the terrible loss. I went to events at the Capitol and the Kennedy Center, and I also was asked to represent my family with a talk at the Justice Department, where I had served. The week brought back the excitement of that time, the bold initiatives, the fights over civil rights, the launching of the Peace Corps.

Despite the numerous citings of my uncle's inaugural challenge, I almost never hear anything like that call to sacrifice for the good of our country from our leaders today.

The reality of the week turned even more difficult when my uncle Sargent Shriver died, as did my father's long-time secretary, Angie Novello. The evening wake at Holy Trinity and the funeral were filled with great stories of Sarge's enthusiasm and his determination to make the Peace Corps work. Angie, too, was honored for her steadiness and devotion.

I was filled with conflicting feelings as a slew of relatives, cousins, and their children continually met up at one memorial after another. I listened and laughed, but then I cried. The gaping holes in history and our hearts couldn't be filled simply with memorials and great stories.

Months later, I can still feel the outpouring of affection for my family and a sense of the adventure of public service. Mostly, though, I'm puzzled by the disjunction between 1961 and now. Despite the numerous citings of my uncle's inaugural challenge, I almost never hear anything like that call to sacrifice for the good of our country from our leaders today. Maybe they imagine that the only response would be the frantically jammed exit ramp in Tom Toles' cartoon.

The brilliance of the cartoon is that it not only shows people choosing to do nothing for their country but also the results of that choice. When we're all out for ourselves, when we balk at paying our fair share for basic things like public infrastructure, the result is general misery, frustration, and gridlock.

I take public transportation (the commuter train and the Metro) from Baltimore to my job in Washington. For the last month or so, I've walked up and down the broken escalator, glad I don't have a heavy bag to carry, as I've seen others do. At the bottom I've been greeted by large ads that say, "Waiting for a train isn't fun. Waiting for Congress to cut the budget is worse."

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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Mixed God With Politics and Lost Their Way. From 1995 to 2003, she was Maryland's first woman lieutenant governor.

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