Thursday, January 20, 2011


John F. Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address

Kennedy and Sorensen

Today is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address. The man who actually wrote that speech, Ted Sorensen, died just three months ago. On the useful website “American Rhetoric,” the speech is ranked #2 on the list of 100 Top Speeches, just after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The most memorable phrase from Kennedy’s speech is, of course, this: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” You have to go back to FDR’s line “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” from his own first inaugural address in 1932, to find a politician’s words so famous.
      Well, I was fond of JFK. He was the first presidential candidate I ever campaigned for, when I was 16. My dad admired him; my mom adored him. Losing him was awful. As presidents go, he wasn’t perfect (Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs), but he was pretty good (the Cuban missile crisis, the Peace Corps, the moon program).
      All that being said, however, I will now say this: I think Kennedy’s inaugural address is overrated. Vastly overrated. It’s only real virtue for me is its brevity: it is only 15 minutes long.
      Go back and listen to the speech (it’s on the “American Rhetoric” website).  The speech is very much a product of the Cold War—mostly thinly-veiled threats against the Russians and fears about nuclear annihilation. It is for the most part a quiltwork of clichéd ideas calling for peace-through-strength, all wrapped in nice little rhetorical devices. (Sorensen was especially fond of alliteration, antithesis, and parallel structure.) The speech was hardly designed to draw people from their bomb shelters; it is, in fact, full of subliminal fear. Moreover, there is almost nothing in the speech about the central issues that were to drive American domestic politics in the next decade: civil rights, poverty, health care. Surprisingly, there is nothing about nonmilitary volunteerism, though many in retrospect mistakenly see the seeds of the Peace Corps in its most famous phrase.
     Let’s look at that phrase. The call to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" rang false with me at the time, and it still rings false. Just whom was Kennedy addressing? In fact, in the first half of the phrase, he was conjuring up some phantom population that has never existed. In the U.S. in 1961, or ever, just who was asking what their country could do for them? Almost nobody. In 1961, there were certainly some folks who had every right to ask their country to do something for them: injured veterans of WW II and Korea who were still receiving negligent medical care; blacks whose states forced them to drink from different fountains and stay out of certain restaurants, hotels, and universities; the poor who wanted to work but couldn’t, and were going hungry; the sickly old who were facing bankruptcy from medical bills. Surely Kennedy wasn’t saying that these people had no right to “ask what their country could do for them.” They had every right. They did ask. Thank god, the country listened, and, after Kennedy was gone, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Medicare, and Medicaid were the answer.
     So the first half of Kennedy’s (Sorensen’s) famous phrase evoked a fear that had no cause. It rested directly on a false premise. How about the second half? “Ask what you can do for your country.” This has always struck me as jingoistic. In my most altruistic moments, I have personally never wanted to do things for my country—I just wanted to do things for people. I want there to be less poverty, hunger, disease, and ignorance throughout the world, not just in my country. I distrust nationalism; “ask what you can do for your country” stinks of nationalism. In the actual speech, although Kennedy mentions world poverty (barely, in passing), the phrase “ask what you can do for your country” actually comes in the context of “defending freedom” around the world—that is, in the code words of the time, Kennedy seems to be asking Americans to be willing to fight against the communists. In retrospect, given the Vietnam War that Kennedy himself was leading us toward and that tore the country apart for the next decade, the words “ask what you can do for your country” become hauntingly inapt.
       For me, the phrase "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," though rhetorically clever*, is warped in content. I don’t say the speech is terrible. It is, again, the product of its time. But it hardly rings down the ages. It is no dream of a speech.


*For the record, the rhetorical device used in “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—that flipping of syntax—is called “antimetabole.” (I looked it up.) If you’re a Democrat and you want to see a speech that deserves immortality, listen to Barbara Jordan’s keynote speech to the Democratic Convention in 1976. It is listed as #5 on America’s Top Speeches.

Barbara Jordan's 1976 Keynote Address is a top-5 speech.

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