Catholics in the Washington, D.C., area were relieved of the proscription against eating meat on Friday, January 20, 1961, by special order of His Holiness Pope John XXIII, in recognition of the inauguration, that day, of the first Roman Catholic President of the United States. John F. Kennedy took advantage of the papal dispensation by having bacon for breakfast. He was a man accustomed to the discreet aid and succor of the intelligent, the beautiful, and the well-placed.
The Pope’s dietary intercession must be one of the very few stories with a connection to the inauguration that did not make it into “Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America” (Holt; $25), Thurston Clarke’s earnestly exuberant, nearly minute-by-minute re-creation of the writing and delivery of Kennedy’s famous inaugural address. (The story appears in Richard Reeves’s illuminating “President Kennedy: Profile of Power.”) “Ask Not” is a short book, but there are many berries on the bush. There was plenty of press around in 1961, and lots of cameras, but it was still only the dawn of the era of the unblinking media eye, our own panoptic regime, in which every twitch of the celebrated is monitored and made instantly available for mass titillation. Not all of the celebrated had made the adjustment in 1961, and there was some amusing leakage around the borders of the official script. Frank Sinatra (a well-placed friend if you happened to be interested in making the acquaintance of compliant young actresses) responds to a reporter’s query at the entrance to a pre-inaugural party by snapping, “Where are you from? Bulgaria?” In the car on the way to the inauguration, Mamie Eisenhower makes conversation with Jackie Kennedy, who is the wife of a man about to become the first Irish-American President, and who is seven-eighths Irish herself, by remarking, “Doesn’t Ike look like Paddy the Irishman in that hat?”
At the inaugural ceremony, Cardinal Cushing, of Boston, delivering the invocation, notices smoke issuing from the lectern. Believing it to indicate the presence of an assassin’s bomb, the Cardinal slows down what is already being regarded as an interminable address, in the hope that, when the bomb goes off, his body will shield Kennedy from the blast. (The smoking stopped when an electrician yanked, more or less at random, one of the wires running under the lectern.) Congressman Howard Smith, Democrat of Virginia, walks out before Marian Anderson sings the national anthem. (Smith later led the opposition in the House to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The opposition in the Senate was led by that cynosure of senatorial rectitude Robert Byrd, of West Virginia.) As Kennedy repeats the oath of office, his left hand nervously slips off the Bible, leading some Protestant divines to argue, afterward, that he had never really been sworn in. Robert Frost, before reciting his poem “The Gift Outright,” as a prelude to Kennedy’s speech, refers to “the President-elect, Mr. John Finley,” apparently confusing Kennedy with the master of Eliot House, at Harvard. As Kennedy gives his speech, Lyndon Johnson, sitting behind him and in the view of a television audience of sixty million, notices a piece of paper on the floor, picks it up, retrieves his reading glasses, puts them on, examines one side of the paper, turns it over and examines the other side, and places the paper in a pocket of his suit. The chair in Row B in the stands reserved for Kennedy’s brother-in-law Peter Lawford is empty, because Lawford has a hangover and is back at the hotel, watching the ceremony on TV with Sinatra.
There was also, as Clarke, like other historians, enjoys pointing out, an almost comic web of dislike and suspicion uniting the dignitaries assembled on the platform to hear Kennedy’s speech. Eisenhower referred to Kennedy as “Little Boy Blue.” Truman despised Kennedy, because he despised Kennedy’s father, Joe, whom he had once threatened to throw out a hotel window. Eleanor Roosevelt, another enemy of Joe’s, had campaigned to prevent Kennedy from getting the nomination and declined to sit on the platform with the other grandees. Jackie called the Johnsons “Colonel Cornpone and his Little Porkchop.” Johnson called Bobby Kennedy “that little shitass”; Bobby described Johnson as “an animal in many ways.” Adlai Stevenson resented the Kennedys for naming him Ambassador to the United Nations, and not Secretary of State, the job to which he believed he was entitled, and the Kennedys resented Stevenson for pouting about it, which he was, quite blatantly, doing. And practically no one liked Richard Nixon, not even, when all was said and done, Nixon—a man who, during the campaign, had insisted that “America cannot stand pat,” apparently forgetting the name of his own wife.
The core of “Ask Not” is an anatomy and an appreciation of Kennedy’s speech, which Clarke calls the centerpiece of “a moment when Americans would step through a membrane in time, entering a brief, still seductive era, of national happiness.” It is therefore a work a little “in the tradition of” (as publishers like to say) Garry Wills’s popular book on the Gettysburg Address, “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” to which it dutifully alludes. Clarke, however, has a problem unfamiliar to students of Lincoln, which is the conviction, shared by many, that Kennedy’s rhetorical sails were filled by the wind of other men. Kennedy’s dependence on speechwriters has become thought of as just part of his general reliance on the talented people who tended to be drawn to him, as another feature of his sense of prerogative. That good sport Nixon, asked what he thought of Kennedy’s speech, said, “It’s easy for Kennedy to get up and read Sorenson’s speeches. I don’t think it’s responsible unless he believes it himself.”
Theodore Sorenson had been working on Kennedy’s speeches since 1953, but Clarke thinks that it is accurate to call Kennedy himself the author of his inaugural address—and certainly of the lines that everyone remembers, including “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” His evidence is the drafts made by the speechwriter, the shorthand records of Kennedy’s own dictation, and Kennedy’s pre-election speeches. He thinks these demonstrate that what Kennedy said in the inaugural address was his own thoughts in his own words. Clarke is not quite as persuasive as he wants to be, but he is as persuasive as he needs to be.
Kennedy took speechmaking very seriously. He was infatuated with Churchill; at home, he used to orate along with Churchill on the “I Can Hear It Now” LPs, narrated by Edward R. Murrow. Kennedy was not a naturally gifted orator. He felt uncomfortable in crowds; he had that semi-comic Harvard accent; and he was an impatient man who read quickly and disliked public posturing. He once promised himself that he would never, no matter what, raise his arms above his head and flash a V-for-victory sign. He left that sort of thing to Nixon. But he was a keen student of political rhetoric, as he was a keen student of all the ingredients of political accomplishment. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, another of his heroes, he was a pragmatist who wanted to be a great man. It is not the worst combination of attributes in a politician. Kennedy gave the job of speechwriter to Sorenson for the good reason that he thought Sorenson knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. Sorenson liked to maintain, later on, that, in the course of his relationship with Kennedy, “their style and standard had become increasingly one.” This may seem self-serving, but people who knew them shared the view—that Sorenson, in his speechwriting mode, “was” Jack Kennedy.
Clarke’s view is that when Sorenson produced a draft of the inaugural address he was expanding on points dictated to him by Kennedy and formulating sentences that recast things that Kennedy had said before. (Often, of course, those things must have been in speeches written by Sorenson.) Kennedy, Clarke says, was an active agent. He did not just read a script; he provided the raw material and supervised the crafting. This is all probably true, but it is not what most of us mean by “authorship.” Kennedy was furious when it was rumored that he had not written “Profiles in Courage,” which, published in 1956, won a Pulitzer Prize. When the columnist Drew Pearson claimed that the book had been ghostwritten by Sorenson, Kennedy hired Clark Clifford, then a Washington lawyer, to help compel a retraction. (Pearson issued the retraction; it was ghostwritten for him by Sorenson.) One of Kennedy’s recent biographers, Robert Dallek, concludes, from the tapes of Kennedy’s dictation, that Kennedy was more involved in the composition of “Profiles in Courage” than skeptics have imagined, but that the book “was more the work of a ‘committee’ than any one person.” It was neither the first time nor the last that a politician produced a book in this manner. It has been said that it took a village to make “It Takes a Village.” What readers want to feel, in books like those, is not that every word was sweated over in isolation by the famous person whose name is on the title page but that what is expressed is what the famous person really believes. The basketball star Charles Barkley’s complaint that he was misquoted in his own autobiography signals a certain betrayal of faith.
And, in the case of the inaugural address, so what? Kennedy solicited ideas for the speech from many people. Some were advisers whose views he cared about; some were opinion-makers whom he wished to feel invested in the result. Walter Lippmann, for example, was shown a draft by Sorenson. Lippmann proposed a small change, which was duly made, and then proceeded, after the inauguration, to publish a column in which he described Kennedy’s address as a “remarkably successful piece of self-expression” that “exemplified the qualities which the world has come to expect of the President.” Lippmann did not, as Clarke notes, disclose his own modest contribution. Kennedy would have been a fool not to have asked for input, or, having received suggestions, to have ignored them completely. He naturally delegated the main business of composition to Sorenson, whose drafts he used as the basis for his own dictation and rewrites. Kennedy had an ear; he had wit; he liked to turn a phrase. The speech was better for his emendations and his careful and repeated polishing. He made thirty-two changes—mostly, it seems, for the better—extemporaneously, while he was delivering the address. There are Presidents who are mouthpieces, who utter what they have been programmed to utter. There is little danger of their going “off-message,” because, apart from the message, they have nothing much to say. Kennedy was not one of those Presidents. He would not have received full credit for his inaugural address in English class, but Presidential inaugurations, fortunately, are not English classes.
Clarke is intrepid in tracking down the sources for many of the phrases in Kennedy’s speech. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of echoes of Churchill. It is a little disheartening to learn that the headmaster of Kennedy’s prep school used to say that it’s “not what Choate does for you, but what you can do for Choate.” On the other hand, Clarke reminds us, the phrase “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” in Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, probably came from a department-store ad in a newspaper. And who remembers the department store today? It’s not where you got it; it’s what you do with it.
Kennedy’s inaugural address is remembered as a call to public service. That’s how Clarke remembers it. Actually, the speech is almost exclusively about the Cold War, addressed as much to Khrushchev as to the American public. The “Ask not” line follows right after an exhortation modelled on Franklin Roosevelt’s “rendezvous with destiny”: “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it.” The note throughout is one of alarm: “The trumpet summons us again”; “the burden of a long twilight struggle”; “that uncertain balance of terror.” The call to alleviate poverty and disease is a call to alleviate poverty and disease in other countries, implicitly on the Cold War theory, dating from the Marshall Plan, that poverty and disease is a breeding ground for Communism. It is not a speech about service; it is a speech about the containment of Soviet Communism. It could have been delivered, almost without a word changed, in 1948.
Kennedy’s is the fourth-shortest inaugural address in American history (Kennedy wisely insisted on brevity): fifty-two sentences, fewer than fourteen hundred words. Ten of those words are words for freedom (“free,” “freedom,” “liberty”). Eleven are variants of “new” (“anew,” “renew,” “renewal”). “Generation” appears four times, “revolution” or “revolutionary” three times. The “world,” “globe,” “earth,” “planet” is mentioned fourteen times. There are exactly two words about domestic issues. They appear in a sentence pledging not to “permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.” The last six words in that sentence were a late insertion, made in response to a plea by two Kennedy advisers, Harris Wofford and Louis Martin, to say something to acknowledge the support that Kennedy had received from African-Americans. “At home” constitutes the speech’s entire consideration of civil rights.
It is a strong and streamlined speech, and its style suited perfectly the persona of the man who delivered it. It is hortatory, but it was a hortatory occasion. There is only one clunky moment (“And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion”), and when you read some of the undeliverable epigrams that Kennedy’s advisers proposed—John Kenneth Galbraith: “Penuriousness is not the path to greatness”—you realize that one mismatched metaphor is not so bad. But it is a sad speech to read today. This is only partly because, as Clarke rightly says, that was a time of civic faith and optimism, and a time when it gave Americans pleasure to think of the President as someone special, a different breed from the rest of us, and not a man who has to constantly pretend to be one of the guys. The speech is also sad because it articulates, in the noblest terms, the Cold War aspiration of winning the hearts and minds of the decolonizing world—the aspiration that came to grief in Vietnam.
The inaugural address is canonical, but it is not Kennedy’s most remarkable speech. That was the speech he gave at the Rudolph Wilde Platz, in West Berlin, on June 23, 1963. A million people turned out; the ones who fainted were held upright by the crush. The speech is under seven hundred words, and Kennedy improvised much of it, though he had the German spelled out phonetically for him. His advisers, in fact, were appalled by its bellicosity. But Kennedy understood Berlin, and he understood its significance in the history of the century. He had been there in August, 1939, leaving just days before the invasion of Poland. He revisited the city in July, 1945, three months after the death of Hitler, and he was stunned by what he saw. Berlin had been destroyed. Kennedy could be a cold and vain man, and he led a life of privilege. But he knew something about the world; he also cared about it. His speech in 1963 ends with that grand gesture of solidarity: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ ” The gesture is in the spirit of Roosevelt and Marshall, and it was the last time an American President could make it without immediately raising doubts about its authenticity. Five months later, Kennedy was dead.