Slimantics: Asking the better question


Slim Smith



When it became clear that Joe Biden would become the next President of the United States, I found myself spending the better part of the weekend pondering two questions posed long ago and about 20 years apart.


On Jan. 20, 1961, in his inaugural address John F. Kennedy urged Americans to ask the right question:


"Ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do for your country."



In October 1980, Ronald Reagan, during his debate with Jimmy Carter, asked Americans a different question:


"Are you better off than you were four years ago?"


Today, and for some time now, we are a bitterly divided nation. The election held a week ago today may have decided a President, but it did little to settle the deep grievances Americans hold against each other. Almost 76 million people cast their votes for Biden while almost 71 million voted for Trump.


In light of this, I started thinking about those two questions:


Who asked the better question: Kennedy or Reagan?


Kennedy's was an appeal to unselfish service, a plea for empathy and understanding, for something bigger than ourselves.


Reagan's was a more personal question: What's in your wallet? -- as a popular credit-card advertisement states it. It was, no doubt about it, an appeal to self-interest.


The questions Kennedy and Reagan asked were appropriate to the context of their time, or appeared to be, at least.


Kennedy strode into office at the zenith of American confidence, a time of prosperity and optimism even under the growing shadows of the Cold War.


Reagan's ascension came at a time when America was struggling through an oil crisis that wrecked finances and shook our confidence. When you're worried about how you're going to feed your family, self-interest is not a character flaw.


But I wonder, even in Reagan's time, if Kennedy's was not the superior question, especially if success for one comes at the expense of another.


I wonder, in fact, if Kennedy's is not always the better question.


In every crisis - from the Revolutionary War ("We must, indeed, hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately," noted Benjamin Franklin) to the Civil War ("With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right ... let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds..." said Lincoln) to the Great Depression ("In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory,' said FDR) -- we succeed through unity.


In its finest moments, our nation has never been inclined toward "every man for himself." In its worst moments, it always has.


So here we are.


Whatever grievances we may hold in these days when the euphoria or bitterness over the outcome of the election remains so fresh in our minds, we must recognize a stalemate when we see one. We are not simply divided but almost equally divided. If we go to war with each other, it will be a war of attrition. No one will win, though some may survive.


The proper path, I believe, lies in understanding the essential question before us.


It is the question Kennedy urged us to ask almost 60 years ago, one that places common interest over self-interest -- no small matter during a pandemic.


If we take care of all Americans, we take care of each American.


Then, four years from now, perhaps we can ask another question:


Ask not, am I better off than I was four years ago?


Ask, am I a better person?



Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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