John F. Kennedy photo

Farewell Remarks to Participants in the Summer Intern Program for College Students

August 28, 1962

Ladies and gentlemen:

Somewhat belatedly I want to welcome you all to the White House. I assume that you're all not only older since we last met, but also wiser, and I hope that this summer's work has been useful to you in whatever you do, and that some of you will be tempted to come back to Washington and work with us.

I wonder if we could ask how many have become interested in either becoming a politician or a civil servant or a bureaucrat as a result of this summer? Perhaps you could hold up your hand.

What about the rest of you?

In any case, I'm delighted to welcome you to the White House.

This tree behind me was planted by Andrew Jackson. The balcony was built by Harry Truman, and that tree over there was planted by John Adams. So I think that just visiting this historic house and these grounds does bring you in more intimate contact with American history. You've heard a good many Americans who occupy positions of responsibility this summer. There is some feeling, I know, by a good many Americans, that the American Constitution, which Gladstone called the most notable work ever struck off by the mind of man, gives us an automatic light to the future, guides our way, and that all we have to do is follow the very clear precepts it lays down for us.

Well, the American Constitution is an extraordinary document and it is certainly the most extraordinary written constitution in the history of the world, but it has required men to make it work, and it still does today. After all, the Constitution was written for an entirely different period in our Nation's history. It was written under entirely different conditions. It was written during a period of isolation. It was written at a time when there were 13 different units which had to be joined together and which, of course, were extremely desirous of limiting the central power of the Government.

That Constitution has served us extremely well, but all of its clauses, the general welfare and due process and all the rest, had to be interpreted by man and had to be made to work by men. And it has to be made to work today in an entirely different world from the days in which it was written, both at home and abroad.

I am always struck by the fact that the United States, which has had so many gifted political leaders, in the days before the war, beginning in 1860 and '61, that we had for a period of 30 years in the Congress the most extraordinarily gifted figures that we've had in our history--Calhoun, Clay, Douglas, Benton, and all the rest; and yet they dealt in their whole life, and many of them stayed in the Congress for a generation, with only three or four problems: tariffs, States rights, and the new States coming in, slavery, currency, and two or three others, and yet this extraordinarily gifted group of men failed, and as a result, of course, we had this long and bloody war.

Now, perhaps, our political leaders may not be so gifted and yet they deal with questions which are far more complex than the questions which came across the desks of our people a century ago.

We deal with questions of monetary and fiscal policy. We deal with questions which are esoteric--balance of payments, nuclear tests, the mix of our strategic weapons. We have obligations stretching all around the globe, and yet this country must make not only our society work, but all those societies which are dependent upon us.

This is an extraordinary obligation which presses upon those who hold positions of responsibility in the National Government today. And where these rather towering figures of a century ago failed in dealing with the relatively few and, in a way, obvious questions with which they had to deal, now the questions which come across our desks and, therefore, really, in a sense, the desk of every citizen, every active voter, dwarf in complexity and significance and importance all that went then.

So that is why I urge those of you who have touched the Government in one department or another to think of coming back. I know perhaps a generation ago, or even 10 or 15 years ago, a Government career was regarded in a sense for those who wanted the more secure and steady life. That isn't true, of course, today. Whether you serve the Government abroad--and I can assure you it isn't a place for those who prefer the gentle winds--I think whether you work for the United States abroad, as did Major Bailey, who I saw yesterday, who served us in Laos, or whether you work here in Washington or any place, this is the most challenging career that could possibly be before any American. And while the compensation may not be as great--the immediate financial compensation-nevertheless the rewards are unlimited.

So I hope that those of you who can will come back here. Those of you who cannot will choose some other way of serving the general interest. For the next 10 or 20 years the burdens will be placed completely upon our country for the preservation of freedom. We stand in the center and we are associated with allies, we are associated with those who are neutral but who are friendly to us, we are associated with those who have a latent hostility to us, but all depends upon the keystone which is the United States. And that is a sober responsibility for a country which 20 years ago prided itself on its long isolationist and neutralist tradition.

So I hope you do come back. Woodrow Wilson once said that every man sent out from a university should be a man of his nation as well as a man of his time. Those of you who have the advantage of college education's and work here I think can represent the best kind of civil servant or politician. It is an attractive career, I assure you, and I wouldn't want anyone to sit on the sidelines today when so much goes on in the mainstream.

"Would you have counted him a friend of ancient Greece," a great American educator asked a century ago, at the time of the Kansas-Missouri struggle, "Would you have counted him a friend of ancient Greece who quietly discussed the theory of patriotism on that hot summer day through those hopeless and immortal hours Leonidas and the 300 stood at Thermopylae for liberty? Would you count anyone a friend of freedom who stands aside today?"

So I hope that you come in and join us because the water is not too cold. I'm glad to see you.

Note: The President spoke at 10 a.m. on the South Lawn at the White House.

In his remarks the President referred to Maj. Lawrence R. Bailey of Laurel, Md., who on August 27 had been awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service. Major Bailey was a captive of the Laotian Communist forces for nearly a year and a half.

John F. Kennedy, Farewell Remarks to Participants in the Summer Intern Program for College Students Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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