The John F. Kennedy inaugural address was 50 years ago to the day – on Jan. 20, 1961. It remains an iconic American speech and is the subject of Google’s Thursday home-page doodle. Google’s logo is drawn using words that Mr. Kennedy used on that historic day.
How good was Kennedy’s inaugural address? Very. Historians generally rank it as one of the four best US presidential inaugural speeches of all time. William Safire, former New York Times columnist and Nixon speechwriter, included it in a volume he compiled of the greatest speeches delivered in history, writing that it “set the standard by which presidential inaugurals have been judged in the modern era.”
Its most famous line is probably, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” But it’s just filled with memorable quotes: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But never let us fear to negotiate.” (Both of these feature the flip-around rhetorical device of antithesis, in case you’re interested.) “My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America can do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of mankind.” “Let the word go forth from this time and place ... that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” And so on.
The best inaugurals have come at times of national stress, giving the speakers a great subject, and Kennedy’s was no exception. The cold war loomed over the podium as he talked. It was the context for perhaps the most geopolitically important part of the speech:
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.
“This much we pledge – and more.”
Gives you chills even today, doesn’t it?
Mr. Safire, in his analysis of the speech in “Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History,” noted that many of its cadences were direct steals from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural. For instance, where Lincoln said, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen ...” Kennedy said, “In your hands, my fellow citizens ....”
Kennedy speechwriter and chief intellectual aide Ted Sorensen is thought to have given the speech its classical structure and best lines. Whenever Mr. Sorensen was asked whether he wrote the best lines in the speech, he often replied, “ask not,” as a means of deflecting the query.
And what are the three other best inaugural addresses, you ask? FDR’s 1933 speech, in which he famously declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And Lincoln’s two inaugurals, which are among the greatest short works ever written in English and deserve their own Google logos. Lincoln’s birthday is coming up, by the way.