John F. Kennedy - 1960

Sen. John F. Kennedy emphasizes a point with an outstretched arm while addressing a rally in the Milwaukee Arena on Oct. 24, 1960. 

Associated Press archives

John Kennedy's 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary campaign took him from Muscoda to Menasha, from Mellen to Milwaukee, and right up Main Street in Union Grove, where I grew up. Kennedy shook hands and posed for pictures and gave speeches. But the speeches were different from the boilerplate lists of talking points that most politicians peddle today; Kennedy took Wisconsinites seriously and, in small towns and cities, delivered smart, detailed addresses on domestic and foreign policy.

Above all, the young senator from Massachusetts spoke of values and ideals, setting the tone for a new era in American politics. One of the most thoughtful of Kennedy’s speeches was a Feb. 18, 1960, address at Oshkosh State College. In it, he spoke of “a worldwide revolution of hope and expectation.”

Oshkosh State College is now the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and I’ll be there tonight to speak at the annual JFK Dinner that Kennedy partisans organize. I’ll discuss the constitutionally defined values and ideals that Democrats and Republicans once embraced with equal passion.

Those values are today under assault by Donald Trump.

The president displays open disdain for the robust democratic discourse that Kennedy and his Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, celebrated. Trump refers to media outlets that speak truth to his power as “the enemy of the American people.” He even suggests that broadcast licenses might be denied to the most ardent questioners of his authority.

That’s bad.

Worse yet are the efforts of Trump’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, to use media regulations to narrow the discourse that sustains democracy itself.

Pai wants to eliminate net neutrality — the First Amendment of the internet that guarantees all content on the web moves at the same speed. If he gets his way, telecommunications giants could set up “fast lanes” for commercial and entertainment content from corporations that can pay, while consigning civic and democratic content to “slow lanes.”

Pai also wants to eliminate so-called “cross-ownership rules,” which guard against the development of local and national media monopolies. If he succeeds, companies that are friendly to the president, such as Sinclair Broadcasting, could gobble up media outlets in communities across this country — creating “one-newsroom” towns where the range of debate is limited.

That’s not the vision that John F. Kennedy was talking about when he spoke of a worldwide revolution of hope and expectation. Kennedy believed that free and independent news media that challenge political and economic elites were essential to democracy.

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“Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive,” explained the 35th president. “(That) is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply 'give the public what it wants' — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”

In the contest between Kennedy and Trump, I’m with Kennedy.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times