In the pantheon of inaugural addresses, few, if any, shine brighter than President John Kennedy’s delivered on Jan. 20, 1961.
Most presidential inaugural remarks, in fact most political speeches, are forgettable.
Looking back over two-plus centuries of inaugurals, really only a few stick out: George Washington’s first inaugural, mainly because he was the nation’s first president; Abraham Lincoln’s first and second inaugurals, offered as America faced and neared the end of a devastating Civil War; and Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural, delivered in the throes of the Great Depression.
Memorable lines from Lincoln’s and FDR’s remarks particularly echo through time: “better angels of our nature;” “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right;” and “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Perhaps the best inaugural of the last forty years was Ronald Reagan’s first.
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Reagan said, as the country faced a steep recession and sought to overcome the 1970s malaise and the self-doubts raised by the Vietnam War and Watergate.
“We have every right to dream heroic dreams,” he exhorted. “And, after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”
The common backdrop for all these addresses was an inflection point in U.S. history when the country’s future seemed somehow in doubt.
It was no different when Kennedy rose to deliver his celebrated remarks in 1961, a little over a decade into the Cold War.
This was a time when schools across the nation were conducting duck-and-cover drills in preparation for a potential nuclear strike by the Soviet Union.
Dr. Theodore Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, noted that while people tend to look back at the 50s and early 60s and think peace and prosperity reigned free, there was a lot of uncertainty in the air.
There were three recessions during President Dwight Eisenhower’s tenure in office, including in the election year of 1960 as JFK faced off against then-Vice President Richard Nixon.
Then there was the Berlin crisis that went from 1958 through 1961, “which a lot of historians regard as the central event of the Cold War,” according to Bromund.
Many feared the showdown between the East and the West over the future of Germany in general and its former capital city of Berlin in particular could lead to World War III and a nuclear conflagration.
Into this mix add Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba in 1959, ultimately placing a pro-Soviet communist regime 90 miles from our nation’s shores.
Additionally, there was the USSR’s apparent lead in the space race and in the production of nuclear-tipped missiles.
In this environment, Kennedy delivered an inaugural address trumpeting the cause of liberty and exhorting Americans to have faith for the future.
“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom — symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change,” the new president began. “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.”
“The world is very different now,” Kennedy continued. “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”
John T. Shaw, the author of “Rising Star, Setting Sun: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and the Presidential Transition that Changed America,” described JFK’s inaugural as a “prototype of a tough Cold War speech.”
“He did, of course, put out olive branches to the Soviet Union and to our adversaries,” Shaw pointed out.
“But, at core, there was a pretty tough message: ‘Let every nation know whether it wishes us ill or well 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,'” the author said, quoting from the president’s address.
Shaw explained the reason the speech was so unifying, coming after a contentious election in which Kennedy edged out Nixon, was that the former Massachusetts senator steered clear of domestic politics, focusing solely on foreign policy.
Back in that day, “pretty much everyone, with rare exception, was running a pretty stern anti-communist campaign.”
Of Kennedy’s style, Shaw observed, “I think a big part of his power, a big part of the power of his oratory, was that he spoke briefly, concisely, poetically.”
This skill set is on display in some of the most memorable lines in the inaugural address.
“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution,” Kennedy said. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or 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.”
Of course, all the words in Kennedy’s relatively brief address led to its mighty crescendo near the end: “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Bromund noted that historians have tended to give Kennedy solid marks for his handling of the presidency. He ranked 8th in C-SPAN’s most recent historians’ survey of presidents, a few spots behind Eisenhower, at 5th on the list, and just above Reagan.
However, “the public thinks he’s incredible and that’s got to come down to the speeches and the image” more than Kennedy’s record, which is relatively thin, the former Yale lecturer said.
A 2013 Gallup Poll ranked JFK No. 1 among all modern presidents going back to Eisenhower.
The 35th president had not quite finished three years in office when an assassin’s bullet struck him down in November 1963.
In terms of great speeches, Bromund prefers Eisenhower’s more balanced, clear-eyed farewell address to Kennedy’s soaring (and at times unrealistic) inaugural, but concedes the latter included some great phrasing.
Shaw is a fan of both but loves Kennedy’s maiden presidential speech.
“I think it remains one of the great inaugurals in American history. It’s clearly in the top tier of the top four or five,” he said. “And nothing has happened in the last 60 years to seriously change it in terms of his successors.”
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