Richard Reeves: Kennedy’s Words, Obama’s Challenge





It was an anxious time, the beginning of 1961. In the eight years before Jan. 20, 1961, the Soviet Union had tested a hydrogen bomb and had put in orbit the first satellite, Sputnik, which passed over the United States for months. Central Intelligence Agency analysts estimated the the Soviet economy was growing at a rate of between 6 percent and 10 percent a year, compared with the United States’ growth rate of between 2 percent and 3 percent. Unemployment in America was at 7 percent and the country had gone into recession early in 1960.

Now, this day, the youngest man and the first Catholic ever elected, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was to be inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States.

Kennedy had defeated Vice President Richard Nixon in one of the closest of national elections, but the country was united — by fear. For the first time since early in the 19th century, the United States mainland seemed vulnerable to foreign invasion. Nearly 20 new countries, most of the former colonies in Asia and Africa, joined the United Nations in 1960 and most of them were looking for guidance not to the Americans but to the Soviets.

“We’ve got to get this country moving again!” was the line Kennedy had used most often during his campaign.

So, it was not surprising that the new President would give an inaugural speech that was essentially a cold war battle cry. Only two words in Kennedy’s speech even touched on domestic affairs. Those words were “at home,” and they were added by Kennedy and his gifted speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, at the very last minute.

The new president’s civil rights adviser, a young man named Harris Wofford, complained to Kennedy, pointing out that 24 hours before the inauguration, 23 Negro students had begun a sit-in at segregated lunch counters in Richmond, Va., the old capital of thre Confederacy, 100 miles south of the Capitol of the United States.

“Okay,” said Kennedy, who added the words so that one sentence declared that Americans were: “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed to at home and around the world.”

The ceremony was in a city sparkling like a diamond. Eight inches of snow had fallen during the night and and the sky was perfect cold wintry blue. The temperature was 10 degrees below freezing. The young President made his first statement by not wearing an overcoat as he sat next to his 70-year old predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenower, who was bundled in a great coat, scarf and top hat.

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans … Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,support any friend,oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

The words rang, still do in television excerpts and classrooms. Kennedy was a man who knew that in his new job, words were often more important than deeds. Few people would remember whether he balanced the budget. Almost all Americans would remember his lines, particularly, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

The speech was bellicose and conciliatory at the same time:

“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not a call to battle,though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out …”

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate …”

Paradoxically, one of Kennedy’s worries that day was that he would be overshadowed by another speaker, the poet Robert Frost. When Frost, who was 86, asked to speak, Kennedy’s first reaction was: “He’s a master of words I have to be sure he doesn’t upstage me …” The President-elect suggested he recite an old poem, but Frost insisted on writing a new one. The day’s sun and the wind made it impossible for the old man to handle his papers and, in the end, he did recite from memory an older poem titled “The Gift Outright.”

So, it was Kennedy’s day and Kennedy’s words that are remembered. Like the 44th president, Barack Obama, the 35th read and re-read the inaugural adresses of the 16th, Abraham Lincoln, who had said exactly 100 years before: “In your hands, my dissatisfied countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

Kennedy concluded: “Let us begin. In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”


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