We have been going a little vintage lately, and we’ll have to do it one more day. For today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, the begining of a presidency that inspired many, even though it lasted scarcely more than 1000 days. Kennedy’s inaugural speech ran 1364 words and took 14 minutes to deliver. That makes it significantly shorter than the longest inaugural address (William Henry Harrison took 8,445 words in 1841) but longer than the tersest one – George Washington spoke merely 135 words during his second address. With 50 years of hindsight, we still consider Kennedy’s speech one of the finest inaugural addresses because, as E.J. Dionne writes this week, it challenged the nation (and still does today) “to harness realism to idealism, patriotism to service, national interest to universal aspiration,” especially with the eternal line: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” You can revisit the speech in full above, and also find other great archival footage within the new YouTube Channel sponsored by the JFK Presidential Library.
This speech, made before Kennedy became older and wiser, reads a little war-like today, I think. But even 50 years later, I’m always struck by how something about this man just shines through when he speaks to the camera.
I think his high point was the speech made after the clash with George Wallace. It’s the best use of bitter near-sarcasm, I think, in public speech, when he asks, “Who among us would be satisfied….”
At about the 11:20 or 11:25 mark, Lyndon Johnson sees a scrap of paper on the ground, picks it up, gets out his glasses, reads it, then puts it in his pocket and resumes listening to Jack as if nothing happened.