THE BLOG
09/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

With Passion and Purpose

It's curious to reflect on three moments in my life that are marked by the same question: Where were you when Kennedy died?

As a high school freshman in New York, I was in the middle of learning some important but long forgotten piece of Algebra when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Our teacher, Mr. Freeman, was called out of the room, and when he returned, he simply said that President Kennedy had died that afternoon and asked us all to say a prayer.

As a freshman at a small community college in Los Angeles, I had taken a stronger than usual interest in politics due largely to Robert Kennedy's plea to young people to get involved, be part of the solution. On the night of June 6, 1968, I was watching television when an announcer broke-in with news of Kennedy's assassination just after winning the California Democratic Primary for president. Once more it seemed, the light of optimism had been crushed.

Yesterday, I awoke to learn of the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy on washingtonpost.com, and got caught up in reading the many headlines that searched to define him: "Lion of the Senate"; "Gifted and Flawed"; "Extraordinary Leader"; "Defender of a Dream."

What was always preeminent with all three Kennedy brothers was their eternal vigor for optimism; their wish for better days ahead no matter the crisis of the moment. And it seemed, that in their words lay the truth of our American spirit:

"I look forward to a great future for America," President Kennedy once said, "a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose."

And the challenge that president so eloquently laid before us at his inauguration, "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

And the equally moving words that brother Robert used to similarly motivate us to accomplishment.


"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation."

What I admired most about Robert Kennedy was his utter fearlessness in calling immorality for what it was.

"What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists, is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents."

As the senior senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy embodied much of that same courage and style.

"Thus, the controversy about the Moral Majority arises not only from its views, but from its name - which, in the minds of many, seems to imply that only one set of public policies is moral and only one majority can possibly be right."

And this: "Integrity is the lifeblood of democracy. Deceit is a poison in its veins."

Each spoke with a passion and a purpose that continues to inspire today. The issues may be different, but their words are just as clear and powerful as ever and continue to arouse a duty beyond oneself.

"Individual faults and frailties are no excuse to give in -- and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves," Ted Kennedy told a Harvard audience.

"Today, more than ever before, I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too. And in this life, those endeavors are never finished."

Jim Lichtman writes and speaks on ethics to corporations, associations and schools. He is on the National Advisory Board of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life at U.C. Santa Barbara. His commentaries can be found at www.ethicsStupid.com.