Personal Ramblings on Kennedy, Nixon, and Ford at USC

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Luke Phillips

As a Trojan, a student at the University of Southern California, and as a disciple and student of American history, in particular the history of the Presidency, I recently made a point of reading the speeches delivered by three Presidents of the United States to the assembled USC student body- John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign speech, Richard Nixon’s 1960 campaign speech, and Gerald Ford’s 1976 campaign speech.

Two of these presidents, Kennedy and Ford, are forever memorialized on the steps of Doheny Library at USC. The other one, Nixon, married a Trojan and remains the only president to have attended a USC football game. They all have a certain sort of connection to the university, then, and in a sense, they all have a certain connection to me.

There’s the surface-level things. Kennedy was Catholic, and I’m Catholic. Ford was an Eagle Scout, and I’m an Eagle Scout. Nixon was my kind of Republican- I’ve called myself “an old-line Richard Nixon Republican” many times before.

But it goes deeper than that. These three presidents who spoke at Troy, in varying contexts, all fundamentally took on themselves the same mission in different ways. Kennedy took a stagnating America, well-managed but elitist and stuffy, and sought to inspire the public to do great things. Nixon found a torn and broken America in need of reform, and did what he could to put the pieces together and set it on the right direction. Ford, inheriting the failures of Nixon, bound up the country’s wounds in an age when things could’ve gotten much, much worse.

I am reminded, in these cases and perhaps in the case of every President, of Aeneas’s speech to the Trojans in Book I of the Aeneid- “Call up your courage again.” (Every year I’ve been here, USC administrators read this speech to the graduating classes in Latin, Greek, and English.) It’s a testimony, perhaps, to the eternal nature of leadership that such things don’t change.

I’ve often thought that the purpose of the University of Southern California, as inscribed upon the statue of Tommy Trojan, is exactly as it was written: “Here are provided seats of meditative joy… where shall rise again the destined reign of Troy.” The prophecy, if we can call it that, is straightforward; here at USC shall be cultivated the talent and skill for a new generation of leaders, who shall rise to do great things for civilization in due time.

I take it a bit more literally, though. Troy was to Rome, I think, as America, up to this point in our history, can be and will be to an even greater future for our descendants. I don’t know what form this “Destined Reign of Troy” will take- but whatever it is, it is the duty of we historians and political thinkers coming out of the Trojan school to get ready to build it. I want to be part of that effort, and am working to shape my character, intellect, and career towards it.

It’s not that every statesman or every President is an Aeneas, but in a way they follow his footsteps. Aeneas, the noblest Trojan and the first Roman, embodied the kind of self-control, sacrifice for the broader good, and delicate political skill needed in any leader. The Roman virtues- pietas, dignitas, virtus, and gravitas- are necessary, absolutely necessary, in any leader.

One could argue that Kennedy, Nixon, and Ford failed to exhibit these qualities, which I think is a fair assessment. Kennedy’s sexual affairs were legendary, as was Nixon’s paranoia. Ford was nowhere near as competent a politician as Kennedy or Nixon. Nonetheless, they did their best to keep things moving in America, and to the best of my understanding, I believe Kennedy, Nixon, and Ford more or less succeeded.

As we sail through these turbulent times upon us, it’d be helpful to remember these legacies and the men behind them.

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