Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Was Khalil Gibran The Inspiration For Jack Kennedy's Most Famous Quote?

Our good friend Chris Matthews has just published a new biography of JFK, Jack Kennedy ~ Elusive Hero. John Kennedy is one of my political heroes, and I was gratified to learn that Chris, who has put a lot of thought and original research into this book, reaffirmed the same truth about JFK, that he was an American hero, yet elusive profile in courage during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I studied the Cuban Missile Crisis in college, as an example of presidential leadership. I honestly believe that had Richard Nixon been president instead of JFK when the world hung in the balance during those critical 13 days, this world would have been destroyed in a nuclear conflagration.

Chris is reintroducing JFK to a whole new generation of Americans and is setting the record straight in the wake of so much distorted historical revisionisim. I'm looking forward to reading Chris's book. Here's a small part of my Kennedys political items collection:

It's said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Where did JFK's most famous quote, from his inaugural address, "And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," originate? From what I can gather, Chris says that Jack Kennedy got it from a favorite professor, perhaps at Choate? But I would submit, and this is really intriguing, that Jack Kennedy may have borrowed the quote from the famous Lebanese poet, painter and philosopher, Khalil Gibran, author of The Prophet.

It's fascinating to contemplate this confluence of events: In the early part of the 20th century, Gibran took up residence in Boston, MA, the Kennedys' backyard. In 1926, Gibran published a work entitled "The New Frontier," also translated as "The New Deal." In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in the LA Coliseum, Kennedy said, "[W]e stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960's, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. ... Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus."

The term took hold, and the bold new direction to which this young president proposed to lead the nation came to be known as "The New Frontier." But it was thirty-four years earlier that a philosopher and intellectual and fellow Massachusetts resident had published a work by the same name, in which he wrote: "Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert." Although, before Gibran, the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in an 1884 Memorial Day speech, "Recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return." And failed Republican president Warren G. Harding said this at the 1916 Republican convention: "[W]e must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation."

Food for thought. But Jack's remains the most elegant, most stirring, and most famous version.

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