Kennedy’s Legacy, 50 Years Later (VIDEO)

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.

Related Articles:

In Tucson, The President Comforts a Nation

2011 State of the Union Address Set for January 25

We Must Still Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.


Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Signal Corps / JFK Library via Wikimedia Commons


jane richmond
jane richmond6 years ago

The day we all lost our collective innocence! OUR President died by the hand of another person. The youth of America could never believe something like this was possible. Yet there it was. We all grew up in the days following the JFK's death.

Gloria W.
Gloria W.7 years ago

great speech!!!

Timothy Naegele
Timothy Naegele7 years ago

Kennedy was a fraud, pure and simple, as I have discussed in an article entitled, "John F. Kennedy: The Most Despicable President In American History."


The problem is that the Kennedy family members and sycophants have been burying the truth since his assassination, and it needs to be told. When he died, his “image” was frozen in time, but the truth is grotesque. To lionize him like his sycophants have done is a crime, and unconscionable.

The latest travesty is Caroline Kennedy's successful distortion of the truth by forcing the History Channel to drop its already-completed min-series about Kennedy and his wife, starring Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear.

Claudia McCall
Claudia McCall7 years ago

Safa, this was beautifully written, especially the last 4 paragraphs. There is alot of truth in what you wrote, but I feel also we have been betrayed by Obsma and the Dems.

I feel the assassination of President Kennedy was the beginning of the end of America as many of us knew it. Add equal measures of Vietnam, Watergate, the assassinations of RFK and MLK, 8 years of trickle-down Reaganomics, and 8 years of W, and here we are, at if not past America's tipping point. Damn, how sad!

Kay L.
KayL NOFORWARDS7 years ago

I was a child back then, but JFK's campaign was my first conscious experience of politics. I remember his campaign visit to my small backwoods town in southern West Virginia. He was an... [here everyone's Fundamentalist voices dropped to a whisper] idol-worshipping (the Virgin Mary) Catholic, who would destroy everything our good Baptist Bible-based society stood for. But he came and spoke to that hostile crowd, and his words showed that he understood the desires and issues of a backwoods people yearning for education and a share in the good mainstream American lifestyle of the late 50's and early 60's. His charisma lay in a sense of integrity and the ability to understand and connect with people's true needs. I remember that when my father voted, for the first time in his life he went against the decree of the Union, and voted for FJK. And my pre-adolescent self was glued to the black-and-white TV watching the election results, as JFK won the West Virginia primary and then the national election despite almost 100% predictions to the contrary.

Whatever else JFK may have achieved as president, for me his first and greatest achievement was in winning the hearts of the ordinary people.

Donald MacDonald
don MacDonald7 years ago

Rose would you be surprised to learn JFK was not assassinated ?

Check out


Rose Balcom
Rose Balcom7 years ago

The needless slaughter of President Kennedy to this day makes me sick at heart. And it always will. The grainy home video that captured this shooting is still horrifying and sickening. I wished it hadn't been filmed. Sickening just sickening. From a Canuck who was just a young kid when President Kennedy was killed.

Donald MacDonald
don MacDonald7 years ago

It wasn't too long after the Vietnam deployment that JFK had his conversion.

Interstingly enough, his change of nature occurred during the time he and Judith Exner taking LSD.


Manuela C.
Manuela C7 years ago

Memorable speech.

Paul B.
7 years ago

Anita... The problem with viewing Obama from across the world is that all you hear are his words, which I agree are very eloquent, but in most cases don't match his actions. What he says is double speak for what he really means. You have to "read between the lines." Don't be fooled by the fancy speeches, look at the legislation, the executive orders, the csars and their influences, how he treats Wall Street, the favoritism to the unions, etc. Only now that his party got creamed in Nov, he is trying to sound more like Reagan, but still passing orders and pushing legislation that is more about social justice and redistribution of wealth, like his attempt to appease small business. Read the details of the new 10 page order. See what's hiding in the language. He has repeatedly promised laser focus on economy, and no rest until fixed, but every other cause has taken precidence, including his record setting vacations, parties, and social time. Watch his actions not words.