The presidency of John F. Kennedy has two distinct bookends. The assassination is one, shocking and devastating, the 50th anniversary marked this past week. The other is the inaugural address, memorable like few others delivered, many of the words at the tip of tongues even today.
I found myself drifting back to that cold January day as part of getting my bearings for the retracing of what happened in Dallas almost three years later. The speech offers a way to begin measuring his time in the Oval Office, and to help account for what was lost, and remains missing.
Try recalling inaugural addresses of the past century. Franklin Roosevelt spoke about having nothing to fear but fear itself. Ronald Reagan talked about government as the problem. Little else sticks in the public imagination.
Except for the Kennedy speech, and the echoes are many, in fragments, phrases and whole sentences: “Let the word go forth … that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans. … Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. … to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle. … defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.”
At the time, the address won much praise, Harry Truman, for instance, applauding the new president for telling people what they should hear and seek to achieve. In part, the speech is a period piece, the Cold War as its backdrop. It is a summons to those who fought and prevailed in World War II. Its rhythm, cadence and brevity work together as a reminder of the music and power of words.
No passage is more remembered than the command toward the conclusion: “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
What caught my attention in reading the speech again was the “And so, … ” What set up these famous words? How did the speech flow logically to this point?
Near the start, Kennedy famously wants every nation to know “that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” He adds: “This much we pledge — and more.”
Kennedy makes a set of pledges, to “the loyalty of faithful friends,” to newly free nations that colonialism will not give way to “a far more iron tyranny,” to help poor countries help themselves (“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”). He pledges a “new alliance for progress” with Latin America and support for the United Nations.
To adversaries, he offers “not a pledge but a request,” to “begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity, in planned or accidental self-destruction.”
There is no illusion that all of this can be achieved in 100 days, 1,000, “in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.” The call is to begin, and it is a call not simply to a generation but, most important, to a nation and its citizens.
This president isn’t bowing to nostalgia, or pointing to an irretrievable past, or to some gauzy notion of the future. He frames concrete challenges for the here and now, and speaks frankly and cleverly to what we share: “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.”
What a fitting counter to our own polarized political climate.
A sentence later, the command arrived, “And so, … ”
Kennedy faced division. His first year in the White House included the debacle of the Bay of Pigs and a poor performance at his meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, arguably, setting the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis. He deepened the commitment in Vietnam. When the Freedom Riders met violence in Alabama, Kennedy appeared annoyed at the inconvenient timing of their pursuit of civil rights.
The criticism followed, noting the gap between the thoughts about freedom in the inaugural address and the president proving timid against tyrants at home.
The Kennedy presidency has been wrapped in myth, though less today. The glamour can captivate, the family with its home movies an early version of the “selfie.”
In the end, a presidency isn’t defined so much by the daily maneuvering as its broad direction. Kennedy learned. He proved adept in the missile crisis because he had made a decision that ultimately would lead to the nuclear test ban treaty and the start of detente.
In June 1963, he elevated the cause of civil rights, telling the country, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” with honoring our highest principles, the federal government firmly siding with equality and opportunity.
Such achievements reflect what appeals about his inaugural address, the nation called, our public selves, to advance the union.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.