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 this Tuesday, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 50 years ago this Friday. 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: leadership.
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 will power 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?
As a candidate in 2008, President Obama galvanized the nation in a way that few national candidates could have dreamed of. But now, five years later, the vision of uniting red and blue America to refocus on our challenges at home has given way to less lofty ambitions: Can we confirm a nominee? Can we fix a website?
History is full of people with great ideas, but leaders also need to ensure their visions become reality. Both Lincoln's vision of free democracy and Kennedy's vision of men on the moon would be forgotten today had they not gotten to work the day after their speeches putting their ideas into action. Lincoln's address took all of three minutes, but he spent the next two arduous years ensuring the preservation of our union. Kennedy returned to the Oval Office after his speech and immediately put Vice President Johnson to work ensuring NASA had the resources and organization it needed to meet both the goal and timeline the President had set forth.
Strong leadership is not just about one man. Leadership and vision inspire a nation, and, as Kennedy told us in Houston, "serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." It has been said that, upon visiting Cape Canaveral, Kennedy asked a janitor what he was doing. The janitor's response: "putting a man on the moon." Truly transformative leaders inspire deep commitment among many, and have continued impact long after they are gone.
In America today, it is easy to become cynical. Many of President Obama's setbacks have come from an intractable few extremists who tell us that politics is small because it is easier that way--people who tell us that government cannot do great things, because they do not want to do anything.
But America has always faced skeptics, both at home and abroad, and we don't have to be short-sighted. President Lincoln was not. President Kennedy was not. They knew that America is at its best when we are striving toward a common, lofty goal.
What we need today, more than anything else, are visionary leaders who can inspire us to greatness and also ensure we get there. We need leaders who are willing to stand up, drive the debate, and commit our fellow citizens to action. We need leaders "to do this and other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."