In 1863, Abraham Lincoln used 272 words to inspire a fractured nation with his Gettysburg Address. A century later John F. Kennedy used just 20: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

In just a few weeks, we’ll mark the anniversary of President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination with quiet memories of new frontiers, a veiled widow and a saluting son.

For many, it will be a reminder of how much we’ve lost, since that day, of our sense of collective purpose.

When I was a boy, growing up in the South End of Waterville, two photos could be found on the walls of nearly every home: Jesus and John F. Kennedy. In our largely Catholic and French neighborhood, Kennedy was a magnificent inspiration: a man of expansive vision, a war hero and an orator who loved a good joke.

He was photogenic and rich, but he also came from a Catholic immigrant family. He had climbed high but never forgotten his roots.

I remember walking home from seventh grade early on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, in stunned silence, full of confusion and tears, knowing that something important had been taken from us, but not what it meant or why.

I was reminded of Kennedy this last week while listening to a speech by Peter Mills, a Maine Republican for whom I have great admiration and who now runs the Maine Turnpike Authority. Mills, a member of one of the state’s great political families, served in the state Senate like his father and grandfather before him.

Mills was lamenting the changes we’ve seen in this state and nation in his lifetime, pointing in particular to the many ways in which past generations worked together to build the country and the economy, improve the environment and modernize schools, all to hand it forward to the next generation.

We seem determined, in our time, to hand to the future a declining infrastructure, mounting debt, worrisome climate changes and colleges that are increasingly out of reach to young people.

Mills was talking, at least in part, about what we now call the Greatest Generation, who together won a great war and then got to work to build the largest middle class the world has ever seen.

They did that through hard work and sacrifice, but also by using government constructively to invest in a national transportation system, help young people and veterans go to college and make it possible for more people to buy a home.

Mills offered a perfect illustration of how Mainers, in those days, invested in the future.

When he got his license to drive, at age 15, Mills paid 22 cents a gallon for gasoline. Half of that amount was taxes, which were used to build today’s road and bridge network, bringing goods and jobs to people around the state.

Today, the price of gas is about $3.25, but we pay only 50 cents in taxes, or roughly 15 percent.

Woe to any politician who suggests we should pay more. That’s a good deal for us, of course, leaving more money in our pockets today, but a terrible prospect for those who will pick up the tab for deferred maintenance and a system in decline.

Listening to Mills reminded me of Kennedy’s call to action, and of how little we are now asked, by our political leaders, to sacrifice for a larger good.

On the contrary, politics seems to have become a nonstop flea market of giveaways to get votes. Democrats give a wide array of programs and protected government jobs, while Republicans give tax breaks in all directions.

While each side claims its actions are noble and for a greater good, it all seems to boil down to the same thing, in the end, which is staying in power.

It has become fashionable today to focus on what we get rather than what we do and, of course, to deride government. But Kennedy had a different view. He saw public service as a noble calling and government as a way to ensure that everyone had a fair chance to succeed.

What Kennedy and the Greatest Generation have tried to tell us, I think, is that the ideThe a of personal freedom and collective responsibility go hand-in-hand at the foundation of our democracy.

Perhaps it’s time we asked again of each other: What we can do for our country?

Alan Caron is the president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy, and a partner at the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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