Mark Shields: When public service was honorable

By Mark Shields

In November 1960, I cast my first presidential vote for John F Kennedy. But because I was in the middle of 13 weeks of Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., that fall, I had to vote by absentee ballot.

Parris Island recruits were prohibited from reading newspapers, listening to radio or watching TV. So I did not find out that Kennedy had defeated Richard Nixon until the Thursday after the election when my Marine drill instructor, a white, Protestant South Carolinian, ordered me to appear before him and, while delivering an ungentle bolo punch to my stomach area, said the following: “Well, your goddamn mackerel snapper won.” A ‘mackerel snapper’ was an anti-Catholic slur from that non-ecumenical era intended to disparage Catholics who observed their Church’s then-rule that forbad eating meat, but allowed eating fish, on Fridays.

I did not know John Kennedy. I can offer no anecdotes attesting to his private wit or his personal kindnesses. But I do still have vivid memories of the public man who was much more than a made-for-TV docudrama or a great photo spread.

Through totally unearned good luck, I, like millions of others, was born both Irish-American and Catholic. For most of us, Kennedy’s victory was a source of pride. On June 11, 1963, five months before that fateful day in Dallas, he made a few of his co-religionists angry but a lot more of us proud when he became the first president to tell the nation that civil rights was a “moral issue … as old as the Scriptures … as clear as the American Constitution.”

He put a question to the country about the black American who “cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want.” He asked: “Who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place … and be content with the counsels of patience and delay?” I can still remember my tears of pride when Kennedy spoke these words.

Myth informed us that the Irish were eligible for only three jobs: priest, policeman or politician. Kennedy taught us that politics were about a lot more than zoning variances and asphalt contracts, that politics — the peaceable resolution of conflict among legitimate, competing interests — could be a respectable, even a noble profession.

True, his successes with the Congress were not overwhelming. But as a leader, Kennedy was quite special. As the historian Thomas Bailey wrote, a president can influence, even determine, the national mood. Herbert Hoover, who was unable to shake the gloom all about him, confirmed this view when he wrote, “unless the President remain cheerful and optimistic, he becomes a depressant.”

Kennedy set a definite national mood and expressed definite public values. That mood was one of optimism and idealism. We stood as one with our government, which was the positive instrument of our collective will and not some alien force to run against in a campaign. Public service was important, and it was honorable. The strong and the gifted had a special responsibility to those who were not so blessed and we all had responsibilities to each other, to our country and to humankind.

The spirit John Kennedy inspired may have been best expressed by a young volunteer who accepted Kennedy’s challenge to join the Peace Corps the young president had championed: “I’d never done anything political, patriotic, or unselfish, because nobody ever asked me to. Kennedy asked.” That sums up what Kennedy touched in my generation. Because he convinced us that we really were better than we had thought we were, we actually did become better than we had been. That is leadership.

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