Words that inspired a generation
There was one brief shining moment some 40 years ago when the word and the image were in fine balance in the world of politics. Into that time came John F. Kennedy. A handsome man, Kennedy cared very much how he looked, almost to the point of excessive vanity. But he also cared deeply about what he said and how he said it. His rhetorical hero was Winston Churchill, whose bold speeches had fortified a nation fighting for its life. Kennedy was no Churchill, yet whatever else American historians ultimately conclude about him, they will remember his 1961 inaugural address, which contained the memorable line, "Ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country.''In Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America, Thurston Clarke devotes the kind of attention to Kennedy's speech that Garry Wills and other writers have recently given to Lincoln's speeches. His book unintentionally serves as a coda to those analyses; as he notes, the Kennedy administration was the last period in U.S. politics when speeches mattered as much as pictures. And beyond his explication of the words, Clarke shows that it was the perfect speech for that particular point in time. Many who remember those elegant, but powerful phrases assume they were written by Kennedy's brilliant speechwriter Ted Sorensen an assumption that would have enraged Kennedy. Clarke examines the speech drafts and other evidence to argue that it was a true collaboration between the two men, with the most memorable lines written by Kennedy himself. Certainly the speech was imbued with the president's philosophy and life experience. As he closely examines the 10 days leading up to the inauguration, Clarke also provides a vivid portrait of the time, the place and the man. Clarke is no unthinking Kennedy acolyte. The president is described in all his complexity, at once brilliant, arrogant, brave, reckless and deadly earnest about making the United States a beacon of freedom in a new era. We seem finally to be far enough away from the trauma of Kennedy's assassination to see his administration with some objectivity. But as Clarke demonstrates, Kennedy's presidency started with what deserves to be counted among the great speeches of this country's history. Anne Bartlett is a journalist who lives in South Florida.