Words That Live: President Kennedy and a Speech From Fifty Summers Ago

08/14/2013 03:40 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2013

November this year will bring a somber time: the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. That tragic event took place a little less than three months before I was born.

When I was a boy, I remember my parents had a long-play vinyl record with President Kennedy's picture on it -- a memorial album, it was called, with "highlights of speeches made by our beloved president."

Over the years, I've learned that for many, passages from those speeches represent some of the most compelling gifts President Kennedy gave posterity. Aspirations, ideals -- things that have led many to the calling of public service, or to seek paths elsewhere to foster the good society.

Many of my mentors and teachers have told me such things firsthand, and I'm grateful for that. Something of a president I never knew becomes more real, more meaningful, seen through their eyes.

Just today, I was reminded of this when reading The Global Public Square, by Os Guinness. By turns trenchant and moving, this book explores how, to use President Kennedy's phrase, "we can help make the world safe for diversity." Indeed, this phrase has been woven into the book's subtitle, and serves as a guiding inspiration for the pages that follow.

Dr. Guinness, educated at Oxford, writes of a phrase I'd never heard before: soul freedom. By this, he means "the inviolable freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief." How can we, Guinness asks, foster a global public square where soul freedom is cherished and perpetuated? It is a question never more timely than now.

Many thought leaders, we learn, provided inspiration for this book: from John Milton to FDR. President Kennedy was chief among them. Tellingly, words from the president's Commencement Address at American University, given on June 10, 1963, are featured as an opening epigraph. "So let us not be blind to our differences," Kennedy said, "but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

I am grateful for the strength and wisdom of these words. Every generation must wrestle with the challenge they pose. President Kennedy wasn't able to give the full measure of all he might have given to meeting that challenge in his time. But fifty years on, as Guinness reminds us, we can aspire to the ideals held out in a fallen president's words. They are ageless words, and words worth remembering.