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."
Worse for whom? What can the sponsors of the billboard possibly be thinking? I wonder. Commuting is miserable because budgets for trains have been slashed. Under the Republican budget the cuts would be worse, the wait longer. The ad is even stranger considering that most of the people waiting on the platform work for the federal government or a business that involves government. Budget cuts could put many of them on the street. Meanwhile, tax breaks for oil companies subsidize travel by car and the incredible traffic jams I avoid by using trains and Metro. That money should be allocated to public transportation, not to BP.
I guess not many Republicans ride the Metro. They don't see who they're hurting when they make sweeping pronouncements about the budget, or they don't care about them. Of course, Metro riders are hardly the worst victims: I'm really thinking about the families on food stamps, the kids in Head Start, the girls and women who need reproductive health services, the Americans whose dignity my father fought for fifty years ago.
When President Kennedy asked what we could do for our country, he didn't pretend it would be easy, or painless, or even fair. He could engage our hopes because he didn't raise false ones. He knew that our country demanded a lot, much of it unpleasant. His older brother and many of his friends had sacrificed their lives in the war. He didn't argue that such a sacrifice was fair. But he didn't try to evade it, either.