ASK NOT

The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech

That Changed America

By Thurston Clarke

Holt. 252 pp. $25

Politics in America is about many things, but it is not about great oratory. Lincoln's two masterly addresses (Gettysburg and the second inaugural), William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic convention, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural address and his declaration of war against Japan, perhaps a speech or two by Ronald Reagan, though his speaking powers were greater than the words he was given to say -- others doubtless will want to include other speeches, but in my view a rigorous selection yields no more than a dozen.

Then there is John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, to which Thurston Clarke has now devoted an entire book. When Kennedy delivered the speech on a snowy, gelid day in January 1961, the nation was transfixed. His frostbitten audience outside the Capitol erupted in applause, and the millions around the country who watched it on television or heard it on radio were transfixed. That was especially true of the young, who felt the world changing before their eyes -- and felt themselves empowered -- when Kennedy declared "that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans."

Clarke was a teenager when he watched the speech in a prep school infirmary; I was a few years older, watching it in the student union of the college where I was a senior. By his own testimony Clarke was powerfully moved by it, as was I, never more so than by the famous words from which Clarke takes his title: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." This, Clarke writes, was what Kennedy had decided would be the speech's "great and immortal 'master sentence,' its equivalent of Roosevelt's 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself' and Lincoln's 'With malice toward none; with charity for all.' " Kennedy's words were a call to service that many young Americans were eager to answer, and they launched the Kennedy administration on a great wave of hope.

With that speech the country "stepped," Clarke argues, "through an invisible membrane of time." He writes: "On the 1950s side of that membrane were filing clerks, passenger trains, propeller planes, Jim Crow laws, post-Sputnik pessimism, Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post, and an unbroken succession of Protestant presidents. After Kennedy's inauguration came computers, jet planes, freedom riders, moon-shot optimism, the television age, and an Irish Catholic president."

Unfortunately it wasn't quite as tidy as all that. Kennedy's address didn't cause any of these great changes, and indeed his short-lived administration had ended well before many of them occurred. The importance of the speech lies in its rhetoric and its symbolism, not in its power to bring about change. We do well to remember that though Kennedy's presidency did have its bright moments, and though the country was always enchanted by the grace and elegance of the president and first lady, Kennedy's relationship with Congress was poor at the time of his assassination, he had started the country down the murky path to the quagmire of Vietnam, and his reelection in 1964 was anything except certain.

The speech, though, was quite something. Seeking to do for it what Garry Wills did in "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America" (1992), Clarke has gone through it with a superfine-tooth comb, "to ask why the words of this supposedly cool and unemotional man had such an impact on so many lives and elicited such a passionate response" -- as well as becoming the beginning of "a brief, still seductive, era of national happiness." Whether this is valid certainly is debatable -- plenty of Americans in the early 1960s had little or nothing to be happy about -- but there can be no question that the speech touched the country in ways few other speeches have, and that it is worthwhile to reexamine it "as the young people who heard Kennedy deliver his address retire from the careers it inspired."

Basically two matters are on the table: How did the speech come into being, and why did it have such an extraordinary effect? The first inevitably leads to the role of Theodore Sorensen, the young aide whom Kennedy called his "mirror image," who wrote or drafted most of his speeches and for years has been rumored to have written the first draft of "Profiles in Courage," for which Kennedy won a controversial and perhaps brokered Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957. Did Kennedy write the inaugural, or did Sorensen, or does the answer lie somewhere in between?

Clarke, a Kennedy partisan, opts for the third choice, but with a strong lean toward Kennedy. Sorensen may well have laid out the essential outline of the speech, but Clarke says its final shape only began to become clear when Kennedy dictated a new version of it to his secretary on a flight from Washington to Palm Beach 10 days before his inauguration. "Kennedy was more than the 'principal architect' of his inaugural address," Clarke writes; "he was its stonecutter and mason, too, the man whose beautiful language, either dictated by him or channeled through Sorensen, cemented together the grand ideas of his speech."

Clarke makes a strong case for this, showing how the famous phrases evolved from one version to the next, almost always with Kennedy's active participation. The strongest arguments, however, are not textual but psychological. Kennedy had been wounded by the criticism of "Profiles in Courage" and was determined not to open himself to the same charges about the authorship of the most important speech of his life. Beyond that, he was perhaps the most literary president since Lincoln. Long illnesses in youth had made him a passionate reader, he was intensely interested in the speeches of other prominent figures, and he took great pride -- with reason -- in his writing skills.

He was confident of his abilities, but he had the modesty and good sense (and political savvy) to ask the counsel of others. Among the cooks whom Sorensen invited to stir the broth were John Kenneth Galbraith, Adlai Stevenson, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Douglas Dillon, Joseph Kraft (a newspaper columnist who could be a shameless toady if the right politico beckoned), Dean Rusk and Arthur Goldberg. Among these, Stevenson, "who probably cared less than anyone else on Sorensen's list if Kennedy's speech was a succes d'estime" -- he had been Kennedy's rival for the Democratic nomination and was now embittered at being handed the consolation prize of U.N. ambassador -- made the most important contribution.

All of which is interesting, and Clarke makes as much of it as he can, but to make a whole book out of a single speech a certain amount of padding is necessary, and there is plenty of it in "Ask Not." Jackie Kennedy's dresses and gowns and hairdos, Dwight Eisenhower's unhappiness about his young successor, Lyndon Johnson's boorishness, Kennedy's womanizing -- all that and much more finds its way into these pages. Still, it has the happy effect of bringing quite fully to life that brief, hopeful hour in our nation's history, and those of us who remember it with affection and longing can be grateful for that.