“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” This line from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address is often thought of as one of the most inspirational remarks in American political history, but the modern legacy of that call makes it seem increasingly cynical and disturbing. It might well have been a throwaway line crafted merely to arouse good feeling and patriotism among Americans at a perilous time in their nation’s history, yet even now its sheer audacity is shocking: Today I am being inducted as your civil servant, Kennedy implied. But the onus to improve America is on you, not on me.
That same audacity has worked its way into the campaigns of both presidential candidates, although more ominously into Barack Obama’s. As one of the country’s most influential senators, Obama could have spent the last four years pounding on tables and screaming about the need to take effective measures to stop the genocide in Darfur. But no, the onus is on us, Obama has said: “We need greater pressure from the American public to tell their senators this is something we are paying attention to, and we want you to prioritize it.” As Richard Just wrote in his brilliant essay on Darfur in The New Republic, Obama is urging us to urge him to stop the genocide.
v We ordinary citizens have already done our part by electing our political leaders; now it’s their turn to step up to the plate and do whatever it takes to solve the problems that we are simply unequipped to handle.
Sadly, McCain doesn’t quite get it either. At a recent forum on national service at Columbia University, he said: “I believe Americans are ready to now to be inspired [sic].They are ready to go. They understand the challenges that we have in this world. They see the Russian invasion of a little country called Georgia. They see the problems in Afghanistan growing larger, they see a whole lot of things happening in the world that [are] going to require us to serve, and that opportunity has to be provided for them.” Um…stop looking at us. None of us is ready to pinch-hit for the President, Congress, and the Departments of State and Defense. Nor is it the role of the President to inspire us with his words. If the President is seen to work tirelessly day in and day out on behalf of the country that elected him, such as by not taking an entire month off every year to clear brush in central Texas, the inspiration will likely take care of itself.
Just as calls for service are often a cynical excuse for inaction, so too are calls for sacrifice. We see this in the endless criticisms of President Bush for not calling for greater sacrifice from Americans in the wake of 9/11, as if the fiery murder of 3,000 Americans by terrorists hailing largely from a country we finance with our Hummers and SUVs were not itself a call to sacrifice. If sacrifice is called for, don’t call for sacrifice—do it yourself. This simple formula was beyond the grasp of Joe Biden, who in 2007 complained that he “expected President Bush to call for shared sacrifice after 9/11,” the same year that he gave less than $1,000 to charity out of an adjusted gross income of $319,000. Hopefully the data in his 2008 tax return will be more encouraging. We are ready to be inspired.