Half a century ago, a charismatic young president challenged
Americans to be good citizens. He spoke of the need for a new generation
to take up the torch of progress and lift the nation to new heights
of greatness—daring Americans to be better, to reject the status quo,
and to shape a bright future. He envisioned a country and world of
increased cooperation, of collective responsibility, where anything was
achievable if people saw past their differences and worked together. It
was a time of excitement and adventure and promise—a new frontier,
he called it—a time for Americans to be bold and courageous.
At the peak of it all, the voice that inspired so much was silenced,
leaving the country and future generations wondering what might
have been. Yet rather than lament the past, we have the opportunity
to look closely at the man and his mission—specifically, the ideals of
citizenship he promoted and his belief that there were new horizons
for Americans to explore—and to consider how we can revitalize that
same quest for greatness today. In a word, Camelot—the quixotic name we
give to John F. Kennedy’s presidency and that unique time in
our collective past—did not have to end in 1963. We can bring it back
The familiar story goes that Kennedy’s bold rhetoric swept an entire
generation of Americans into careers of public service and government,
marking a historical turning point when the prestige of government
itself increased and a more robust spirit of service permeated
public discourse and action. It was a time when people seemed inclined
to pursue careers serving the public interest—when civil service
jobs were appealing and engagement in public affairs was deep.
To be sure, informal historical accounts by nature tend to gloss over
certain details, and perhaps our collective memory of the trumpet’s
call to service during the 1960s is too rosy, overdone, and enhanced
by the romance of Camelot. But the seeming contrast with modern
times nonetheless begs reflection on contemporary understandings of
individual responsibility in public affairs and the manner in which our
civic discourse seems to have veered so far off course.
To understand the mission, we must first look at the man.