Sunday Pages: JFK's "Watchmen" Speech

Plus: the PREVAIL programming schedule for the month of August.

Dear Reader,

When I launched PREVAIL on November 1, 2019, I had no idea where it was going. I knew I wanted to write about Trump and his crimes: to provide context for the tidal wave of news, to make connections between various cronies and associates, to call out Putin and his minions for ruthlessly attacking our democracy, to fight the narrative war on behalf of the good guys. My objective was to do that as regularly as I could, as well as I could, for as long as I could. There was an urgency to the work. There still is.

Twenty-one months to the day later, PREVAIL has more than lived up to its title. When I look back at my archive, I’m stunned at how much is there. Even the podcast, which feels new, has been going for six full months. And I am blessed to have found what all writers want: an engaging, smart, loyal readership. Thanks to all of you for your generous encouragement, help, and support. I very much appreciate my longtime subscribers, and I’d like to also shout out the new subscribers who found me after #WhoOwnsKavanaugh trended last weekend (!) on Twitter. Thank you! Welcome aboard!

I’m a methodical person. I like my routines. The quarantine has made me even more methodical, and more reluctant to disrupt those routines. It is very hard for me to take a break. Heck, I don’t even sleep in ever. But after cranking out two news analysis pieces a week since November 2019, plus a “Sunday Pages” every week since March 2020, plus a podcast every week since mid-February, plus the regular weekly appearances on Narativ’s “After Show,” I simply must take a little vacation. As Chicago once sang: Everybody needs some time away. I need to clear my head, defrag my brain, recharge the proverbial batteries, and gird myself for the long fight to come. If I don’t, I fear I will start making (more) mistakes, and I can’t have that.

So: you know how on sitcoms in the 80s, they’d have those episodes where the family would be sitting on the couch, and the dad would be like, “Hey, remember when that happened?” and then they’d show a clip from an old show, and then the mom would say, “That reminds me of the time that other thing happened,” and they’d show another clip from another pre-existing episode? For the next three Tuesdays at PREVAIL, I’m going to do something similar, but without the laugh track and the big hair. Longtime readers will recognize the cited work—although, to be honest, even I sometimes forget stuff I’ve written—and for my new readers, these will serve as a good introduction to what lurks in the archives. Either way, the “indexes” will feel new.

With regard to the podcast, there will be one more new episode this coming Friday—the season finale of the first season! Then I will do a re-run of two early episodes on August 13 and 20, before kicking off Season Two on August 27.

And this will be the last “Sunday Pages” until August 29 (unless I decide to pop in and write something short). The plan is to stay off Twitter at least for a little while, too, although that is easier said than done. Also, if I am slow to respond to emails or DMs, that is why, so please allow me to apologize now, up front, for my lassitude.

The good news, cosmically, is that when I am on vacation, things tend to happen on the Trump/justice front. For example, the Mueller Report dropped while I was down the shore for the week. It’s almost a mortal lock that some Trumpist malefactor will get indicted while I’m away. Book it.

And now: for “Sunday Pages,” I’d like to share excerpts from the remarks that John F. Kennedy had intended to deliver at the Trade Mart in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. He never gave the speech, for obvious and tragic reasons, but his prescient, insightful words are still applicable to the United States in 2021—perhaps even more so:

I am honored to have this invitation to address the annual meeting of the Dallas Citizens Council, joined by the members of the Dallas Assembly—and pleased to have this opportunity to salute the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest.

It is fitting that these two symbols of Dallas progress are united in the sponsorship of this meeting. For they represent the best qualities, I am told, of leadership and learning in this city—and leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. The advancement of learning depends on community leadership for financial and political support and the products of that learning, in turn, are essential to the leadership’s hopes for continued progress and prosperity. . . .

This link between leadership and learning is not only essential at the community level. It is even more indispensable in world affairs. Ignorance and [d]isinformation can handicap the progress of a city or a company, but they can, if allowed to prevail in foreign policy, handicap this country’s security. In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.

There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable.

But today other voices are heard in the land—voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness. At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest single threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.

We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will “talk sense to the American people.” But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense.

I want to discuss with you today the status of our strength and our security because this question clearly calls for the most responsible qualities of leadership and the most enlightened products of scholarship. For this nation’s strength and security are not easily or cheaply obtained, nor are they quickly and simply explained. There are many kinds of strength and no one kind will suffice. Overwhelming nuclear strength cannot stop a guerrilla war. Formal pacts of alliance cannot stop internal subversion. Displays of material wealth cannot stop the disillusionment of diplomats subjected to discrimination.

Above all, words alone are not enough. The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence. If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.

I realize that this nation often tends to identify turning-points in world affairs with the major addresses which preceded them. But it was not the Monroe Doctrine that kept all Europe away from this hemisphere—it was the strength of the British fleet and the width of the Atlantic Ocean. It was not General Marshall’s speech at Harvard which kept communism out of Western Europe—it was the strength and stability made possible by our military and economic assistance.

In this administration also it has been necessary at times to issue specific warnings— warnings that we could not stand by and watch the Communists conquer Laos by force, or intervene in the Congo, or swallow West Berlin, or maintain offensive missiles on Cuba. But while our goals were at least temporarily obtained in these and other instances, our successful defense of freedom was due not to the words we used, but to the strength we stood ready to use on behalf of the principles we stand ready to defend. . . .

[I]n today’s world, freedom can be lost without a shot being fired, by ballots as well as bullets. The success of our leadership is dependent upon respect for our mission in the world as well as our missiles—on a clearer recognition of the virtues of freedom as well as the evils of tyranny. . . .it should be clear by now that a nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home. Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected by those whose choice affects our future. Only an America which has fully educated its citizens is fully capable of tackling the complex problems and perceiving the hidden dangers of the world in which we live. And only an America which is growing and prospering economically can sustain the worldwide defenses of freedom, while demonstrating to all concerned the opportunities of our system and society. . . .

Our adversaries have not abandoned their ambitions, our dangers have not diminished, our vigilance cannot be relaxed. But now we have the military, the scientific, and the economic strength to do whatever must be done for the preservation and promotion of freedom.

That strength will never be used in pursuit of aggressive ambitions—it will always be used in pursuit of peace. It will never be used to promote provocations—it will always be used to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes.

We in this country, in this generation, are—by destiny rather than choice—the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

Thanks for your continued patronage of PREVAIL. It is my honor and privilege to do this work, and I am grateful to you for your generous support. Enjoy the rest of August, stay healthy, stay safe, and I’ll be back before you know it!

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Photo credit: FDR Library. John F. Kennedy speaking in front of Springwood, the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, New York, during the 1960 presidential campaign. August 14, 1960.