Thurston Clarke: Why JFK's Inaugural Succeeded

Roundup: Talking About History

Thurston Clarke, in the NYT (1-15-05):

[Thurston Clarke is the author, most recently, of"Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America."]

AMERICANS watching John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration on television saw a scene worthy of Currier & Ives. The marble facade of the Capitol gleamed in the sun, dignitaries wore top hats and dark overcoats and the cold air turned Kennedy's breath into white clouds. When he said, "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," his words actually appeared to be going forth into the exhilarating air.

No one knew that Kennedy was wearing long underwear so he could remove his topcoat and appear youthful and energetic, or that he had received months of tutoring from a speech coach, or that there was so much animosity among the platform's dignitaries that if grudges had weight, the entire contraption would have collapsed. No one suspected that Cardinal Richard Cushing had slowed his invocation because he believed that smoke wafting from beneath the podium came from a smoldering bomb meant for Kennedy, and he wanted to absorb the blast himself. (It was actually a short circuit.) No one knew that as Cushing droned on, Kennedy was probably improving his address in his mind. (He would make 32 alterations to the reading copy of his inaugural address as he spoke.)

Praise for his inaugural address came from across the political spectrum - Barry Goldwater said, "God, I'd like to be able to do what that boy did there" - and was so extravagant it seems hard to believe the nation was even more divided than it is today. Kennedy had won the 1960 election with only 49.7 percent of the popular vote, yet a Gallup poll taken soon after his inauguration showed him with an approval rating of 72 percent. His own pollster, Lou Harris, put it at an astounding 92 percent. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, perhaps hoping for similar ratings, have paraphrased lines from Kennedy's speech in their own inaugural addresses.

The most recent offender was George W. Bush, who in 2001 translated "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" into "What you do is as important as anything government does. I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort; to defend needed reforms against easy attacks; to serve your nation, beginning with your neighbor."

Kennedy's imitators have failed to appreciate that the words in his address were only part of its magic. There was also the brilliant weather, Jackie Kennedy's wardrobe, Robert Frost's poem and a president-elect who had devoted almost as much attention to his appearance as his words - darkening his tan in Palm Beach, and fussing over the cut of his suit and the arrangement of dignitaries on the platform.

They have failed to appreciate something else, something that is nearly impossible to replicate. It was Kennedy's life - and his close calls with death - that gave the speech its power and urgency. Those who study the speech would do well to pay less attention to the words and more attention to how he wrote the speech and to the relationship between its words and Kennedy's character and experience....

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