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What Makes America Great

CAMBRIDGE – Presidential inaugurations and commencement ceremonies are usually very emotional events. They are rites of passage that mark both an end and a new beginning in the life of a country or an individual.

As a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, I attend our commencement ceremony every year. Despite this regularity, I still become emotional as I see my students complete a phase of their lives and contemplate their future.

One of the highlights of our ceremony is a video in which several professors and public personalities read, line by line, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. It is a text written 56 years ago, in a different world, where the Cold War, the threat of nuclear Armageddon, and the challenges faced by so many newly independent poor states dominated policymakers’ concerns. And yet, running at under 14 minutes, it never fails to move and inspire everyone in the audience, including that half of the graduates and their families who hail from other countries, near and far.

To understand why, it is useful to recall a few of the most famous passages. For starters, there was Kennedy’s vow to defend freedom for its friends and from its enemies: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”