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Leonard Pitts Jr.: Biden's moonshot a hard sell to an America in winter

Kennedy addressed a different America in a different season. Their first challenge was simply to do. Ours is to believe we can do, to re-embrace the very idea of national mission.

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President Joe Biden talks about the Cancer Moonshot and the goal of ending cancer, at the JFK Presidential Library on Sept. 12, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Chris Christo/TNS
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President John F. Kennedy committed America to landing on the moon in a speech on Sept. 12, 1962. It was spring. The calendar said otherwise, yes. But, as has been argued before in this space, Kennedy presided over a season of renewal, a season when optimism was birthright, confidence, high and horizons, endless.

"We choose to go to the moon ... and do the other things," he famously declared, "not because they are easy but because they are hard."

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And no one doubted for a minute that we could do hard things. Because America was a nation in spring.

Monday, on the 60th anniversary of Kennedy's speech, President Joe Biden committed America to ending cancer as we know it. And it was winter.

Again, that has less to do with the calendar than with the national spirit. As singer Gil Scott-Heron once said, "Politically and philosophically and psychologically, there has only been the season of ice. It is a season of frozen dreams and frozen nightmares, a scene of frozen progress and frozen ideas, frozen aspirations and inspirations." He said this in discussing his song, "Winter In America," a bleak survey of "a nation that just can't stand much more."

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This was back when Watergate was recent. If his grim assessment seemed apropos to an era of scandal, how much more so is it to an era of insurrection, in which, to borrow the words of Yeats, "things fall apart, the centre cannot hold"?

To understand what season it is is to understand that Biden's speech was about more than cancer. Which isn't to say it wasn't about cancer. Speaking from the Kennedy Library in Boston, the president, who lost a son to the disease in 2015, spoke of cutting the U.S. cancer death toll by half within 25 years. He announced a new agency -- the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H -- tasked with speeding up research.

He spoke of how his "cancer cabinet" is coordinating government efforts. The renewed attention to what has been dubbed Biden's "moonshot" gives hope of progress for an initiative that has been largely stagnant since it was created by President Obama in 2016.

But if this was about cancer, it was also about America in winter. That's why the 46th president repeatedly invoked the 35th. Kennedy, he said, "established a national purpose that could rally the American people in a common cause." He said that now "we face another inflection point. And together, we can choose to move forward with unity, hope and optimism."

"Common cause." "Together." "We." "Unity."

It seemed painfully obvious that Biden, last seen at Independence Hall applying the stick of criticism to MAGA Republicans, had now brought out the carrot of unified purpose. And there was, to be sure, something bracing, after all those years of cynical, transactional politics, of siren calls to our lowest and meanest selves, in being asked again to aspire toward one nation, indivisible.

It felt good.

But that doesn't mitigate the fact that Kennedy addressed a different America in a different season. Their first challenge was simply to do. Ours is to believe we can do, to re-embrace the very idea of national mission. That's easy when you are a nation in spring.

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This, however, is a nation where the trees have gone barren and the birds have flown, a nation shivering in the Alpine freeze of disunion, disaffection and disillusionment, of disinvestment in the greater us. It is winter in America.

And spring seems far away.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

©2021 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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