Later this month, President Barack Obama will stand before a crowd in Washington, D.C. and take the oath of office. We already know that this will be historic simply from the point-of-view of Obama’s background and race. The other competition, however, is performance. We know he’s a great orator and people will expect a barn-burner of an inspirational speech. He won’t have any problem eclipsing others that went before him like George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon or even Bill Clinton. No, the man Obama has to stand up to by way of historical comparison is President John Kennedy. 48 years ago, the inaugural was similarly a piece of history. Not only was it jeopardized by bad weather, but it brought generational change to the White House. It was at that tiime that newly elected President John Kennedy spoke those words we still remember.
“Ask not what your country can do for you…” We’ve heard this so many times, we can finish JFK’s words in our sleep. That speech, delivered on a brutally cold January day in 1961 where a blizzard threatened to shut down the entire affair, still goes down as the best inauguration speech, probably ever, certainly of the 20th century.
This is actually my favorite newsmagazine cover — the day that John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency. It’s a color photograph that Time’s editors had decided two weeks earlier should be taken at the precise moment when he raised his right hand and took the oath as the nation’s 35th President. Just possibly this was the last inauguration where Americans were absolutely filled to the brim with the possibilities that life would be getting much, much better.
Time — with coverage coming from 17 correspondents — led with the speech itself — definitely getting right that it would become the classic speech, the one by which all others have been measured.
A blizzard threatened to turn the whole momentous occasion into a farce — but President John Kennedy, delivering his inaugural address, more than saved the day. Kennedy’s inauguration speech went beyond mere rhetoric derived from the U.S. past; it has profound meaning for the U.S. future. In lean, lucid phrases the nation’s new President pledged to the U.S. to remain faithful to its friends, firm against its enemies but always willing to bring an end to the cold war impasse.
Sometimes, like the JFK coverage, they got the story just right. That’s the fun of the Instant History blog. There will be other times where the writing of the moment was swayed by being too inside the story to see clearly. And there will be other times still where you will see that issues of political correctness and other bias have twisted the honest reporting of the moment into something that the original journalists would never agree with.
Reaction to the speech was immediate. From all shades of political outlook, from people who had voted for Kennedy in November and people who had voted against him, came a surge of praise and congratulation. Even so partisan a Republican as Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen described it as “inspiring” and as “a very compact message of hope.”
The Time reporters here got the speech just right. Who knew when President Kennedy delivered that address that he and his presidency would end in such a tragic manner that it would affect Americans’ sense of trust in their own government and that, as the years passed, he would be revealed to have had such huge personal flaws in terms of his risk-taking behavior?
One thing that impressed me in re-reading this article was how close we came to never hearing that speech delivered in the stirring way it was given. Snow had started to fall the night before and kept falling.
By nightfall on inaugural eve, confusion was complete. At least 10,000 cars were stalled and abandoned. Airplanes stacked up over the airport, then flew away; Herbert Hoover, winging up from Miami, had to turn back, never got to the inaugural. It took Pat Nixon 2 1/2 hours to get from her Wesley Heights home to the Senate Office Building, where her husband was holding a farewell party for his staff. . . At the White House, 30 members of President Eisenhower’s staff were snowbound for the night. Determined partygoers struggled through the storm, some of the men in white ties and parkas, some of the women wearing leotards under their gowns.
Eventually, though, on that terribly cold day, the story was all about hope… a time when a leader could challenge us to “…ask what you can do for your country” without getting in a big political debate.
Who knows what Obama will ask of his listeners this time around? We’ll know soon enough.
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