Remarks of John F. Kennedy at the Choate School 50th Anniversary Dinner, Wallingford, Connecticut, September 28, 1946

It’s a very difficult job to be the wind-up speaker to these distinguished gentlemen, but it is the sort of thing they always do to Democrats, particularly in Connecticut.

I think the success of any school can be measured by the contribution that the Alumni make to our national life. And by this standard I think Choate has succeeded very well, for the Alumni of Choate have made a great contribution to this Country in war and in peace. But there is one field in which Choate and the other private schools of the Country have not made a contribution, and that is in the field of politics. It’s perhaps natural that this should be so. In America, politics are regarded with great contempt; and politicians themselves are looked down upon because of their free and easy compromises.

I think that General Claire Chennault, when he returned home from China, expressed the typical American’s opinion about politics. He was asked whether he was going to run for Governor of Louisiana and he said: "No, I’m an honest man." Most people in America approved of this sentiment. But I do not think that General Chennault realized that when he made that statement, he had measurably weakened the structure of the democratic government that he had fought so long and so well to preserve.

I am not going to make any defense tonight for American politicians. However, I do think it is well for us to understand that politicians are dealing with human beings, with all their varied ambitions, desires, and backgrounds; and many of these compromises cannot be avoided. But it is true that in politics in America there are a great many men whose two objectives in politics, according to Robert Ingersoll, have been "grand and petit larceny."

I think that for this situation we from Choate and graduates of the other private schools must bear our share of the responsibility. It seems to me that Choate and schools like it, and colleges too, have been taught by men who have taken small interest in the contemporary political life around them – with the exception of the gentleman on my left, Mr. Russ Ayres. When Professor Brogan of Cambridge University came to Harvard in 1936 he was shocked to find the men who were teaching politics, who were discussing Aristotle and Plato, had no knowledge whatsoever of politics and politicians in nearby Cambridge.

I believe that in the future, if Choate is really to survive, the men who teach at Choate must instill in its students an active interest in our politics and in the National life around us.

I remember when I announced my candidacy, I was slapped on the back by a great many lawyers, bankers, and stockbrokers who wished me well and said they were glad to see young fellows going into politics. But that was the last I ever saw of them. They helped neither me nor my opponents. They forgot the words of Rousseau who said, "As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State, 'What does it matter to me?' the state may be given up as lost." The figures show it. In Brookline, a very well-to-do community, only twenty per cent of the people voted in the primary; in New York at a recent congressional election only ten per cent. They called themselves independents, they voted only in the Presidential election which meant in fact, that they were too lazy to vote in the primary. And they are the people who have the greatest stake in our society. They are the ones who criticize the most and who have and will have, in the future, much to lose; but they take little or no interest in our political life. And many of them are graduates of schools like this.

It seems to me that, in the days to come, Choate can continue the great work that Mr. and Mrs. St. John have begun by interesting their students in politics, by substituting occasionally Frank Kent’s book on politics for Aristotle, for we must recognize that if we do not take an interest in our political life we can easily lose at home what so many young men have so bloodily won abroad. I don’t think this will happen. But it is the great challenge of our times.

Thank you very much.

SourcesPapers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. House of Representatives Files, Box 94, "Choate School, 28 September 1946"; David F. Powers Personal Papers, Box 28, "Choate 50th anniversary dinner, 28 September 1946." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.