Echoes of 1961 Raise Spirits in the MA House

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Half a century ago, on January 9, 1961, John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of the Massachusetts legislature. He took the oath of office as our 35th president less than two weeks later.

The speech marked Kennedy's departure from the Massachusetts political firmament, where he had shone dazzling bright since the end of World War II. Yet the address has never been known as "Kennedy's Farewell," but rather as the "City Upon a Hill" speech.

That name came from the heart of the text, where Kennedy said he had been guided in politics "by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella 331 years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier." Quoting Winthrop, Kennedy declared, " 'We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill -- the eyes of all people upon us.' "

The address was an example of Kennedy's great ability to wrest poetry from the prosaic moments of politics, in this case a send-off.

On Beacon Hill, headed to Capitol Hill for his inauguration, he invoked a founder of the Bay State, a self-exiled Englishman who dared to believe that his sect was special in the eyes of God and that the entire world would be watching what they did in New England.

It was also perhaps a sly way for Kennedy simultaneously to flatter and chasten his audience of mostly hard-bitten political pros: You're at the summit, surely, but any misdeed here can be quickly exposed.

Kennedy then promulgated four measurements by which the "high court of history" may judge the success or failure of "our endeavors" :

"First, were we truly men of courage -- with the courage to stand up to one's enemies -- and the courage, when necessary, to one's associates -- the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed? Secondly, were we truly men of judgment -- with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past -- of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others -- with enough wisdom to know that we did not know, and enough candor to admit it.

"Third, were we truly men of integrity -- men who never ran out on either the principles in which they believed or the people who believed in them -- men who believed in us -- men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust?

"Finally, were we truly men of dedication -- with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest."

Those words made such an impression on Kennedy's legion of admirers (and imitators) that they had them put on a plaque and bolted to the rostrum in the chamber of the Massachusetts House, where they remain fixed to this day.

On January 11, 2011, a ceremony was held in that chamber to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "City Upon a Hill." An audio recording of the entire address was played, and various speakers stood on the very spot where Kennedy had stood 50 years before and extolled the character, wisdom and eloquence of their forebear, the Massachusetts prodigy who scaled the tallest peak of power and was cast down before his time.

When the speeches -- including a very thoughtful one by the late president's grand-nephew, Joseph P. Kennedy, III -- were over, a Massachusetts state trooper, Sgt. James Connor, stepped forward to sing "America the Beautiful."

Sgt. Connor is built like a linebacker and has the voice of an American Idol finalist -- a gift he lavished, with deep feeling, on every verse of this secular hymn, thereby revealing new meaning in the familiar words.

And with all the talk of a city upon a hill and men of integrity ringing in my brain, one verse suddenly stood out:

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

At the end, I didn't see anyone crying. The President would have liked it that way.

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