Robert Putnam on President Kennedy and Civic Engagement

February 11, 2011
by Molly Lanzarotta

As part of the JFK50 commemoration, author and Professor of Public Policy Robert Putnam reflects on JFK's legacy in the realm of public service and civic engagement.

Q. Your research has focused on social capital and what brings about social cohesion in communities and societies. Was JFK an embodiment of an era and ethos already in motion, or was he a catalyst?

Putnam: President Kennedy was primarily an embodiment of the era. The Americans who came of age before or during WWII were more civically engaged all of their lives – not just the veterans, but also the entire society that had lived through this incredibly bonding experience of a World War. Throughout their lives that generation volunteered more, gave more to charity, and were more civically involved. Even now, when there are so few of them left among us, those folks are still more likely to vote than any other segment of the population.

The fraction of the American electorate that was of that generation reached its peak in 1960; JFK perfectly embodied that spirit. So, when he talked about “getting this country moving again” or, above all, when he talked about obligations of national service, he was speaking to a ready audience of his peers.

But the long-run impact of that inspiring period was interrupted – first by President Kennedy’s assassination and then by the sequence of assassinations, the Vietnam war, and Watergate, and so I would say that the people coming of age after that – the people only five or ten years younger than I am –were formed not in the Kennedy era but in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, a much less optimistic, much less civically engaged era.

Q. So if JFK embodied the “greatest generation” what did that mean both for his presidency and for his legacy?

Putnam: President Kennedy, when he spoke about obligations to the country and about obligations to one another – the rhetoric of “ask not what your country can do for you” was pitch-perfect for his period. And that helped to account for this very powerful effect that his coming to power had on American political culture. It would not have been as perfect 10 or 15 years later when his audience would have been a much more cynical and a much more self-centered one.

His presidency and indeed his rhetoric had a huge influence on me personally. I came from a Republican family and considered myself as moderate, middle-of-the-road. In the fall of 1960 I was taking my first political science course and there was a very attractive woman in the class and to my astonishment she asked me out on a date, and her idea of a date was to go to a Kennedy rally at a shopping center just outside of Philadelphia. The next week I took her – I thought, appropriately – to a Nixon rally. Our relationship has continued ever since, for almost 50 years now. On the 20th of January 1960, we decided to get on a train and go down to Washington. I remember standing at the back of the crowd on that very snowy day and hearing with my own ears – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I’m 70 years old now and the hair on the back of my neck still stands up when I repeat that. It was a hugely powerful moment. It affected my own sense of my own obligations; it’s why I’ve tried to work on issues of public policy ever since, and why I’m delighted to be at the Kennedy School. There is a whole generation of people like me around the country.

Sadly, what could have been a generational impact of Kennedy’s own example which could have led to a really long period of civic renewal in America got disrupted and postponed. But I think there are echoes now of that spirit among young people who came of age after 9/11.

In my own research we’re showing that 9/11 had a powerful effect on the political and civic energies of young people and among them that persists; among the rest of us, that momentary sense of community and civic engagement after 9/11 disappeared almost immediately. And now there is Obama. Like Jack Kennedy in his era, Obama has perfect pitch for that generation, what we’ve called “the 9/11 generation.” Now we don’t know the end of that story; we don’t know how Obama’s presidency is going to develop and whether he can maintain or renew that JFK energy. History never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes. There are parallels between the generational effect and interpretation of JFK’s presidency and the potential long-run historical interpretation of the Obama presidency. 

Q.  Many remember the JFK era as one of cohesion disintegrating into turmoil –is that how you see it?

Putnam: You have to be careful when you talk about social cohesion, because social cohesion doesn’t mean kumbaya, we all love each other – because actually that was not a period in which “we all agree” was characteristic of American politics. Indeed, probably the most striking thing about that period from an historical perspective was that we were in the midst of finally coming to terms with a problem that had been shoved off of our national agenda for a century – dealing with the long-run effects of slavery and segregation. That was an incredibly bitter battle. It had begun before Kennedy, and Kennedy himself – because he recognized what a bitter battle it was – was not eager to plunge into the civil rights issue.

But, on the other hand, what was characteristic of that generation was that they were very civic-minded and very civically engaged and also religious; the 1950s were probably the most religious decade in American history. There was a lot of idealism that came out of that period and Kennedy in part spoke to that. For a large chunk of the American public that idealism found its political voice in coming to the conclusion that racism and segregation were morally wrong.

So, was the Kennedy era an era of placidity? It wasn’t at all. But it was an era of active civic engagement with basic issues of moral justice in politics. And I sometimes reflect that it’s a little odd that over the last 20 or 30 years – with the exception of the issue of abortion – that many other moral issues have been absent from politics. There are issues, like the growing gap between rich and poor, which is a terribly urgent moral issue. And I sometimes wonder whether Kennedy, if he were here today, whether he or someone like Martin Luther King would find a way to rally this new, younger generation to come to grips with basic issues of community and our obligations to one another, in a way analogous to the way in which Kennedy and – though quite differently – MLK did in the 1960s. 

Q.  What do you see as JFK’s reach and legacy today through the lens of your work on social capital, religion, and immigration?

Putnam: Kennedy’s legacy is more a cultural legacy and a legacy of rhetoric and inspiration than it is an actual policy legacy. Three years is such a short period of time. There were consequences of his administration, but they came to fruition under his successor.

So what are the policy legacies? He introduced, probably for the first time, Keynesian economic policy in the United States by having a large tax cut. You could say he began to come to grips with civil rights as an issue, although very gradually. Much more important, he remains a beacon reminding us that there is a better, more noble aspect to our public life. It was a call to public service that has frankly fallen out of fashion in the last several decades, partly for historical reasons, partly because of changing social and economic and technological conditions. I think historically what will be most important about Kennedy’s legacy oddly enough is bound up in his inaugural speech; it is bound up in the rhetoric of “ask not.” It is as an example that, as a country, we don’t have to be so self-centered and narrowly partisan. We are one country and we do have obligations to one another and that, in this period, is I think an immensely important example and historical lesson for our times.

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