It was the beginning of a era destined to live not in action, but in memory. Fifty years ago this Thursday, Massachusetts junior senator John F. Kennedy, the youngest elected president in our nation’s history, took the oath of office and in just 16 minutes and 1,355 words, delivered some of the most enduring lines for American civility.
He was young, privileged, idealistic, perhaps even a bit naive, and defeated then-Vice President Richard Nixon by a slim margin. “Not just the youngest elected but also the first Catholic,” said historian Thurston Clarke. “And also elected by the slimmest vote, majority in the popular vote. And so that’s another reason that he had to give a speech for the ages. A speech that would unite the country.”
“He wanted this speech to speak out and try to address those skeptics, to prove that he was up to the task,” speechwriter and advisor Ted Sorenson, often credited for writing the Inaugural Address, told CBS News in 1999.
A powerful speech
According to Sorenson’s October 31 New York Times obituary, the speech drew its eloquence from the Bible, the Gettysburg Address, Thomas Jefferson, and Winston Churchill. But the speech’s greatest power, the phrases immortalized in American political rhetoric were Kennedy’s own parables, not just for a young president with everything to lose in front of skeptics, but for a young democracy still trying to stake its ground in the aftermath of facism, the third-world tide of communism, and the fear-driven Cold War. Addressing those skeptics, not just as a junior Senator from Massachusetts, but also as a populist American, was perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his short presidency and a defining moment in cementing the Kennedy era as one of the most nostalgic of United States presidencies.
“I think you would find that John Kennedy contributed most of the passages and famous words that we remember: ‘The torch has been passed to a new generation.’ The ‘Ask not’ line. ‘Bear any burden.’ All of those were Kennedy. He had a Sorenson draft in front of him. On January 10th he flew to Palm Beach, he looked at the draft, and he dictated his changes and his additions to the draft:”
Three years later, he was gone. An end to modern innocence and idealism, his death left many behind to question whether his legacy lied in what he accomplished or in what was cut short.
“I think it’s what we thought could have happened,” said Clarke, “because in the last 100 days of his life he was suddenly beginning to have the courage to do the things that were going to make him a great president.”
The things we leave behind
As Mark Twain said “our greater regrets lie in the things we pass up versus the things we do.” Our nostalgia for Kennedy lies in the fact that his death kept him from following through on his inaugural address, and so we judge his presidential value not on what was, but what could have been. Not unlike President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him not for any specific action, but for his “vision” of world harmony and peace. Like Kennedy’s legacy, it was awarded for what can be versus what has been done.
Which makes them two very lofty and unfair ways to stack up presidents, because accomplishments are concrete benchmarks that can be used as a measurable control, whereas vision before action, what can be, what could have been, and nostalgia are not only subjective, they are also retroactive because they pull us back into a wistful self-induced paralysis of “the good ol’ days” as opposed to pushing us forward into progressive motion and improvement.
“This was a presidency interrupted,” said columnist, author, and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. “It didn’t have enough time to impose a real meaning. It had enough time to impose a mood, and to impose an indelible memory.”
And so if we can’t measure Kennedy based on accomplishments because his presidency was too short, all we really have of him are his words and how they impacted America where his actions were cut short.
“The standard complaint is that all Kennedy offered was words, that the actual achievements were minimal, and there’s a lot of truth to that,” said University of Pennsylvania American history professor Bruce Kuklick. “But an enormous part of the job, it seems to me, is the ability of the president to lead a national and an international audience in some way. It’s a talent which is more than just being able to give a terrific speech. You have to calibrate when and where you’re going to do it.”
Speech offers lessons for today
Looking to today, Kennedy’s inaugural speech is one that President Barack Obama can learn from, says The Daily Beast’s Evan Thomas: “The lesson is not to give pretty speeches… the president will have to find a way to ask citizens to sacrifice in very unpopular ways.” Like Kennedy during the Cold War, Obama, also a former junior Senator, inherited a culture of fear, and as eloquent and prolific as his speech delivery is, his timing is off, and it took a national tragedy for him to finally pierce the shrillness and to finally tell America to grow up, act smart, and help him work things out.
Kennedy’s presidency represented a time when the American public could do this, and it’s up to us, not our government, to at least try to recreate that for ourselves today. Like him or not, our president is one man in the sea of a national population that reaches over 300 million. That’s a lot of problems for one person to solve without our help. Batman may have been able to save Gotham, but I don’t think even he would take on today’s national problems.
This inaugural anniversary comes on the heels of Obama’s recent speech in Tucson, which many are crediting as his best presidential speech to date, when he urged Americans to practice civility and humility, both sacrifices in the overwhelming currents of violent political rhetoric in the name of patriotism.
Somewhere between then and now, we have infantilized ourselves to the point where if someone else doesn’t solve our problems right away, instead of picking up the torch ourselves, we sulk in a corner and bully each other into martyrdom.
If we do anything to honor the induction of one of our most beloved presidents, let it be that we get over ourselves as victims and come out of this recession not with loftiness or political combat, but with self-sufficiency, with creative problem-solving and application, and with an infused self-responsibility that enlists us to actively use our own individual talents for the betterment of society in our everyday lives.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Signal Corps / JFK Library via Wikimedia Commons