This week marks two solemn anniversaries in American history: President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered in the aftermath of one of the most brutal battles of the Civil War, 150 years ago Tuesday, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 50 years ago yesterday. These two events, both marked by unfulfilled lives and the specter of what might have been, offer us an opportunity to reflect on what so many admired in both men: vision.
Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy shared more than just being leaders during critical times and the misfortune of lives cut short. They shared a power of will to drive the nation, sometimes single-handedly, toward a destination that few but they realized was attainable.
When Lincoln delivered his address, the result of the Civil War was still very much in doubt for a troubled, young United States. Calling for “a new birth of freedom” for our “government of the people, by the people, (and) for the people” probably seemed unrealistically idealistic to the somber crowd standing in that Pennsylvania field amidst the countless dead — Americans who had killed each other after the American experiment in democracy had descended into chaos.
For Kennedy, the threat to America’s existence came from abroad, but the consequences were perhaps even more dire: Our Cold War foes presented an existential threat to America, and our conflict presented a threat to humanity itself. But like Lincoln, Kennedy rose beyond the conflict of the day to set our sights on a visionary goal much farther off when he challenged us to go to the moon.
Today, America is troubled again, so where are our leaders? Where is our bold national vision to heal the scars of conflict and reach for the heavens? Where is the willpower to drive the country in the direction of the future, to unify the actors that pull our discourse and ambitions in so many directions and set them together on the path of progress?