Today is the 50th anniversary of the most memorable and most quoted inaugural address of the 20th century. On this day in 1961, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president.
The actual drafting of Kennedy’s speech did not get under way until the week before it was due. According to Theodore Sorenson, the president’s speechwriter, Kennedy was worried that his farewell speech to Massachusetts, in an address to the state legislature, had pre-empted some of his best material.
In reading early drafts of the inaugural address, Kennedy suggested dropping references to domestic matters altogether and toned down the partisanship, saying it sounded too much like the campaign. He also wanted it to be the shortest inaugural address in the 20th century. “It’s more effective that way,” Kennedy said, “and I don’t want people to think I’m a windbag.”
The speech itself is exquisite: eloquent and stirring; compact; beautifully balanced; filled with vivid, memorable lines; an address that perfectly captured the spirit of the postwar generation in politics.
In putting America’s struggle within a larger context, Kennedy, early in the speech, articulated its philosophical underpinning: “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago,” JFK said. “The world is very different now. 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.”
I was not yet born when Kennedy delivered his address. But as a young man in college in the 1980s, I would journey to the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library and listen to the speech so often that I eventually memorized every word. Like so many other people of my generation and from an earlier generation, the Kennedy presidency — and the Kennedy rhetoric – deepened my interest in both politics and the power and importance of words.
Do yourself a favor today and set aside a few minutes to read one of the most beautifully crafted speeches in American history.