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OP-ED: Inauguration Day: 1961 vs 2021

  • Published at 01:47 am January 20th, 2021
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John F Kennedy is sworn in by Chief Justice Earl Warren on January 20, 1961 AFP

Can Biden inspire Americans the way Kennedy did 60 years ago?

Today, Joseph Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. He takes up the leadership at a particularly difficult time, following a tumultuous Trump presidency, four years that have left the US struggling with a pandemic that promises continued death and disruption; an economy with a high level of unemployment and vast destruction of small enterprises; and finally with an American people, a large percentage of whom do not believe Biden is a legitimate president. 

All of this at a time when China is believed to be a threat to the US and there are many international disruptions caused by the pandemic and the consequences of a weak international economy. The domestic and international challenges are a consequence of Trump’s ignorance and dishonour.

Unsatisfactory presidents

Biden steps into the role of the leader of the US facing these challenges. Many Americans are doubtful that Biden has the energy and determination to lead the US. The US has suffered from a run of four very unsatisfactory presidents: Bill Clinton 42 emerged as a very intelligent, amoral man who avoided fighting for his country, was a serial womanizer, and had little experience or knowledge of international affairs. 

He was followed by George Bush 43, the most disastrous president since Hoover. Bush led the US into unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and allowed those responsible for regulating the financial sector to bring on a crisis that we are still struggling to overcome. Bush was one level above Clinton in his moral behaviour, but also avoided fighting for his country. 

Obama 44, a nicely spoken, highly intelligent, immature man was little better. He was a man of words, not deeds. He continued to mangle American interventions in the Middle East and Libya. He lacked courage to lift the US and the world out of the financial crisis. He had no knowledge of international affairs, and was learning by doing. 

He, like his two immediate predecessors, showed no sense of patriotism. Finally, we come to Trump 45, who managed to join the others in avoiding any responsibility to fight for his country; he lacked any rules of good behaviour, was a womanizer, a man who relished cruelty, and to top it off, lacked any disciplined intelligence.  

Into this noble group of failures strides Joe Biden. 

It is remarkable that three of the four had daughters, but no sons. It is in a son that a man is reflected. Only Trump has sons and their behaviour seals the judgment on 45. 

Following these four unsatisfactory presidents, how does 46 stack up? He is a decent man, but not the brightest bulb in the room. He, like the previous four, has very limited administrative experience (Clinton was a governor as was Bush, but Texas is a state where the governor’s role is unusually limited). 

He like 42, 43, and 44, has had no real life outside of politics -- neither experience nor accomplishment. 45 has a life outside of politics largely of failure and meaningless achievement as a TV host. Biden did not serve in the American military, although oddly, he has claimed on occasion that he was in the army. One son was outstanding, the other lacking in moral behaviour.  

We all wish Biden luck and success. The world needs the US to take up its role as a leader standing for democracy, human rights, and liberty against the repression of China, Russia, and so many other regimes.  

1961

On January 19, 1961, Washington was struck with a tremendous snowstorm. Although the government and most businesses sent their workers home early in the afternoon, it was too late. Traffic jams brought movement to a halt.  Automobiles ran out of fuel; it was so cold that drivers kept the cars running to have heat. When the automobile had no more fuel the people in the car just left.  

I was having dinner with a friend, so walked from my office downtown to my residence, changed my clothes, got a warmer coat and walked a few miles to the restaurant where we were meeting. 

After a good dinner celebrating our delight that Kennedy would become president the next day, we tried to get transport to take her home. There were no taxis, no buses, and no alternative than to walk the five miles to her place.  

It was cold! The next morning, we decided to go to the inauguration. We walked the six miles in the beautiful cold morning across the Memorial Bridge, past the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, arriving at about 11:30am at the Capitol. 

The three symbols of American democracy and freedom glowed in the cold morning sun. This was the essence of democracy, the transfer of power from one group to another.  

Then, I experienced one of the great days of my life. 

Kennedy rose to give his address: Present were the outgoing President Eisenhower and ex-President Truman.  He began with a clear statement: “Man holds in his mortal hands the ability to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”  

A stark statement of where we are 60 years later, with billions living in desperate conditions of insufficient food, poor health, and little education for children; limited housing, disease, violence, and insecurity dominate the lives of a very large percentage of humanity.  

We can fix this, as Kennedy said 60 years ago; we can do so now. But we have not only nuclear weapons, and more countries armed with these dreadful weapons, but also terrible pandemics and the threat of global warming.  

We have the wealth and knowledge to remove poverty and oppression. We have the means to destroy ourselves by war or ignorance.  

Can Biden provide the needed leadership?  

Kennedy went on in words that stirred my heart and many of the young men and women of America: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. 

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” 

Here was the declaration of honour and determination that so many took as the guidance by which to live. It is a view that sadly is out of fashion. 

Can Biden stir the fast dying embers of the fire that Kennedy lit?

Much of the Western hemisphere suffered from weak political systems, wrong-headed economic development strategies, and held intense dislike for the Yankees’ strident arrogance and hypocritical advice and exploitation.

Kennedy said: “To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge; to convert our good words into good deeds; in a new alliance for progress; to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. 

“Let all our neighbours know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.”    

So was born the “Alliance for Progress,” where the US recognized its neighbours as worthy equals and pushed back against Castro’s communist Cuba. 

Today, 60 years later, we are back at the same place of neglect, arrogance, and insults. 45 left a record of such.  Latin America now suffers from the worst of the pandemic, while its economies were shattered by the financial crisis.  

Will Biden rise to this challenge of America’s neighbours?

Kennedy turned to the adversaries of the US, the nations that followed in communism, a political system that denies liberty to its citizens, abuses and murders ordinary people, and does not permit disagreements with the leader.  

China and the USSR stood for everything that the US was against. Kennedy warned: “Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge, but a request: That both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.”

But Kennedy also knew that military power achieves little.

“So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”  

Will Biden be able to contain the growth of the military?

Kennedy concludes: “Now, the trumpet summons us again; not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are, but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ -- a struggle against the common enemies of man: Tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”  

“And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.” 

Can Biden inspire young Americans to respond to the trumpet’s call? Pray that he can. Can Americans wake up from their inward looking self-centred past to take on the struggle again tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself?  Pray that they can.

Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

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