Believing that young people can benefit from President John F. Kennedy’s legacy of service and citizenship, Scott Reich, 30, an associate at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in midtown, authored “The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation” (BenBella Books).
Released this month to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination on Nov. 22, the book has yielded its author an appearance on MSNBC’s “The Cycle,” and gotten him calls from NBC’s “New York Nonstop” and “Larry King Now” on the new Hulu channel, where he is scheduled to appear this week. Earlier this year, Reich, who has done pro bono legal work for asylum seekers to the U.S., was honored as one of Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36.” This week he spoke with Jewish Week about the 35th president’s legacy and his relationship with American Jewry. This is an edited transcript.
(See video of a separate interview by the author with Reich, below, for The Jewish Week’s web show, Studio JW.)
Q: What inspired you to write the book?
A: I felt that Kennedy’s message of service and citizenship warranted a fresh look — especially given the partisan and divisive climate in which we find our country today.
In your book you cite Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Any thoughts as to what Kennedy’s opinion might have been about recent presidents’ policies in Iraq and Afghanistan?
It’s important to note the context in which Kennedy’s said those words. The Cold War had been a key issue in the 1960 campaign, in which both he and Nixon sought to convince Americans that they would aggressively combat Soviet advances abroad. His approach to foreign policy evolved considerably during his short presidency. In the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, he developed a real distrust of the military apparatus. In this regard, I think he was uncomfortable with extended foreign wars and the idea of military escalation generally.
In the words of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “The burdens of leadership are heavy.” Do you think America can continue to shoulder those burdens if we continue down the road of extreme national debt? Any thoughts as to how Kennedy might have viewed this problem?
I do believe JFK viewed American global leadership as a moral imperative, from his inaugural address: “To those peoples … across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.” There’s no question that the sustainability of foreign aid is dependent upon our ability to get our national finances in order, and soaring national debt is a major concern.
What were Kennedy’s views on Israel? In researching his life and times, did anything surprise you?
Kennedy declared in a 1960 campaign speech in New York City: “Friendship for Israel is not a partisan matter. It is a national commitment.” While he did have concerns about Israel’s developing nuclear program, he also approved the sale of American Hawk missiles to Israel. One thing that surprised me was how effectively he was able to depart from his father’s values and beliefs. Joe Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain under Franklin Roosevelt, was a Nazi-appeaser and anti-Semite.
What was Kennedy’s relationship with the American-Jewish community?
Kennedy had a relatively good relationship with the American-Jewish community. He appointed Jews to his cabinet (Arthur Goldberg was secretary of labor, and Abe Ribicoff was secretary of health, education, and welfare), and he had Jewish advisers (Myer Feldman and Richard Goodwin). He made campaign stops in 1960 in Jewish communities and with labor unions in the garment industry that were predominantly Jewish. In speaking to civil rights leaders in the White House after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Kennedy spoke admiringly of the Jewish community’s commitment to education as a means of upward societal mobility in the wake of discrimination.
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