Sunday, August 7, 2016

Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America


Rating: 4 Stars

"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

Perhaps among the most recognized speeches in history, Kennedy's inaugural words were viewed by many as the dawn of a new era filled with optimism, with a stunning young family now living at one of the most famous addresses in the world.

This book details the week prior to Kennedy speaking those very words, and we are given of glimpse of how his mind worked as he wrote and re-wrote, added to and changed his speech. This was all-consuming for him and Kennedy was determined to make it the best of his career. Papa Joe did not help matters much, constantly telling Jack that he had already wasted his best speech prior to this - but Jack never took the bait and would keep his inaugural address a secret even from the family patriarch. Kennedy wanted his words to reflect the changing of the times and usher in an era of hope in the bleak Cold War landscape. I think we might consider him a success, seeing as how this speech and the Gettysburg Address are the most well-known speeches in the history of American politics.

Before the prologue we are treated to Kennedy's address in its entirety and even 56 years on they hold their own weight. I can read the words and hear them inside my head in JFK's voice. I have seen footage of the address, but never in its entirety. It is not a long speech, but it is powerful. Reading about all the work that went into it makes the speech even grander. I never knew before that there was such hubbub over the speech to begin with, or arguments/misremembering about how much Kennedy wrote himself vs how much his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, contributed. The author makes a very important point early on, that "...The issue of whether Kennedy composed his own inaugural address, or simply delivered Sorensen's beautiful words, is not some arcane historical footnote. The speech is generally acknowledged to have been the greatest oration of any twentieth-century American politician" (page 9). This speech was a big deal, and still is. It marked the moment in time when America was moving forward into this state of being, and the myth Kennedy was creating was a big part of that. If it were to turn out that Kennedy did not write it, one can only imagine how devastating that would be. Luckily, it would seem that according to the author and evidence we have in the form of Kennedy's secretary's shorthand notes, Kennedy did in fact dictate to her, "...the most immortal and poetic passages of his inaugural address" (page 13).

(As a side note, I am also currently reading Kennedy's 'Profiles in Courage' and I never knew there was also controversy as to how much of that book he wrote himself as well. People seem to forget that Kennedy was one of the most highly educated presidents we'd had up to that point, so why couldn't he have written it himself?)

Beyond the prologue and debate over who wrote which parts and whether the most important and memorable passages were from Kennedy's brain or Sorensen's, the book is broken up into chapters that detail every day leading up to his delivery of the address. We see not only Kennedy's work on the speech, but the physical work he put into his own appearance (I firmly believe he would have eventually died of skin cancer had he not been assassinated). This was key to pushing the myth of the Kennedy mystique - to always appear youthful and carefree - especially following the administration of Eisenhower. Despite the fact that we now know of the myriad of health problems that Kennedy suffered from nearly all his adult life, on that blustery, cold day in January, he looked to be a picture of perfect health. despite the cold, Kennedy did not even wear an overcoat, though much later it would be reported that he stayed warm due to the long underwear he wore beneath his clothing. Image was everything to the Kennedys.

As with most other Kennedy books, this one too touches on some of the Kennedy/Johnson friction. I do not know enough yet about the two men and their politics to understand why there was such aggravation or why Bobby and LBJ especially did not get along. I guess I don't yet understand why LBJ was the VP if the Kennedys could not stand him, or if that was even true, and so on. Every other book I have read about Kennedy so far as mentioned this at least in specific situations and there is much I have yet to understand about this dynamic between the president and vice president.

I was mildly creeped out by the extent of Evelyn Lincoln's devotion to Kennedy, though perhaps it is not entirely fair based on one author's assertions - or maybe it is, who knows. But she kept many of his papers and such, some of which could only have been retrieved from the garbage after he had tossed them out. So, kind of creepy. But at the same time, anything a president wrote could have been historical so perhaps we should also thank her for preserving what she did.

Overall, as with many books about the Kennedy family, I really like this one. It was not sensational, as some books about the family tend to be, and stays focused on the speech and Kennedy's preparations for it in those final ten days before addressing the nation. Definitely recommended for anyone with an interest in Kennedy, the speech, or US history in general.

Two quotes that amused me:

Page 142: "Neither Evelyn Lincoln's appointment book nor the newspapers tell us how long Kennedy stayed at Mahoney's party. We only now he woke up at 6:45 AM on January 19th to the roar of a motorcycle, threw open his second-floor bedroom window, and shouted down, "How about a little more quiet on my last day as a private citizen!"

Page 182: "Grudged and politics go together. Still, so many of the VIPs at the Kennedy inauguration had such a long and contentious history of slights and rivalries that had their thoughts been vocalized, the air would have crackled with a Babel of competing voices, like dozens of broadcasts jammed onto a single shortwave radio band."

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