Kennedy's inaugural address presents a challenge still

Fifty years after JFK's inaugural 'ask not' address, President Obama remembers a speech that inspired a nation.
Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's remembered as a day chilled by "a Siberian wind knifing down Pennsylvania Avenue" and illuminated by "the dazzling combination of bright sunshine and deep snow."

On Jan. 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy began his presidency with a speech at once soaring and solemn. Fifty years on, we have not heard an inaugural address like it. Tethered to its time and place, it still challenges with its ambition to harness realism to idealism, patriotism to service, national interest to universal aspiration.

Theodore Sorensen, the speech's principal architect, was always modest about his own role, less so about the inaugural itself. "It certainly was not as good as Lincoln's second or FDR's first," Sorensen wrote in his memoir, adding that Kennedy thought it not as good as Jefferson's first.

By acknowledging what their joint product was not, Kennedy and Sorensen defined the historical company it still keeps.

A great speech includes lines so memorable that pedestrian orators eventually transform them into cliches. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." This muscular call for sacrifice has launched a thousand lesser speeches.

"Civility is not a sign of weakness" and "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate" - staple references whenever politics becomes particularly vicious.

"The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." And the torch gets passed again and again, whenever a younger politician is marking out generational territory.

It was a compact speech - at 1,355 words, it was less than twice the length of this column. Kennedy, wrote the historian Robert Dallek, insisted that it be brief because "I don't want people to think I'm a windbag." He needn't have worried.

Right and left still battle over Kennedy's words. Were they a call for resolve before the communist threat ("we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty") or were they a plea for negotiation as the answer to nuclear annihilation?

Probably both. The classic realist's declaration that "only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed" was followed by this:

"But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course - both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.

"So let us begin anew."

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