As proud as I am of all Levenger Press books, I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of any new book as much as John F. Kennedy: The Making of His Inaugural Address. It’s coffee-table large and disarmingly beautiful. The facsimiles of JFK’s papers are life-size and cause a double-take, they look that real. But the real beauty is the experience you can have.
After turning the pages, I recommend you watch the DVD of JFK’s inaugural that comes with the book. Then watch it again, this time looking at the reading copy Kennedy had at the podium. (It’s one of the facsimiles.) What you’ll see, for the first time in history, are the many subtle changes JFK made on the fly as he spoke the words: we’ve superimposed them on the document. What a way to get a feel for history, as David McCullough says, “as interesting as it actually was.”
I’ve asked Mim Harrison, the editor of Levenger Press, to give you the backstory on this exclusive collector’s edition.
It should be easy to get distracted inside the research room of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. I. M. Pei’s structure on the outskirts of Boston is a soaring outreach to sea and sky. Its expanse of windows creates a panorama of water and light. Looking out, you find yourself contemplating the larger view.
On the day I went in search of the documents that shaped JFK’s Inaugural Address—his dictation to his secretary, the typed drafts, Kennedy’s handwritten version and his all but illegible back-of-the-envelope notes—the view was particularly beguiling. It was a sparkling September day, the blue waters around Columbia Point glinting with silver and punctuated by crisp white sailboats. But opening the plain manila folders from the Kennedy archives, and touching the nearly 50-year-old papers inside, pulled me inside and into a different meditative trance.
The hieroglyphics of not-so-ancient history
The ever-helpful staff instructed me on how to open a folder of archival papers: gently, and with it flat on the desk so the papers wouldn’t curl. And only one folder at a time, as the papers they contain are loose rather than bound, and must remain in the correct place for the next set of hands.
I could make copies of whatever I wanted, provided I (gently) placed the small wooden marker indicating a copy on the glass of the photocopier first. For note-taking I could use pencils but not pens.
As I sifted through the papers, I found myself grateful for the absence of word processors and emails, with their ephemeral electronic trail. Instead, I was looking at heavily marked-up, typewritten sheets of onionskin paper—that curiously crinkly paper that’s probably the closest thing to ancient vellum we’ve had. The steno notebook held the hieroglyphics of Kennedy’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. Soon those with the ability to read this shorthand will be as rare as those who read the Egyptian hieroglyphics.
There were no ZIP codes then. There were lots of secretaries. And rather than copies of emails, I was reading the 1960s equivalent: Western Union telegrams sent by block wire.
Technology dates, but ideas transcend. What I discovered in researching JFK’s Inaugural Address was why his words remain powerful, even though they were framed against the menacing backdrop of a Cold War we stopped fighting long ago.
In part, it was his delivery. The historian David Greenberg described it as “the last expression of…Churchillian oratory.”
But there was more to it than that. Kennedy’s words were the manifestations of ideas and ideals that had been with JFK well before his election. Kennedy’s words were his own. After his inauguration, many of those words (though not all) would indeed become deeds.
When it’s at its best, the role of oratory in America’s history is one not merely of finely crafted language. It is the eloquence of ideas that become actions. Executed at the right moment, such eloquence has a way of changing history. Lincoln’s did, Kennedy’s did—even though neither president completed his historic agenda. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address is testament to the transformative power of words well used because they embrace a larger view.
“Let us begin anew,” JFK says at one point in his address. Almost half a century later, led by another young and eloquent president, Americans continue to do so. Words—powerful words, words rooted in the faith of their speaker and intended for the common good—can galvanize us into new actions today. The eloquence of ideas is the true flame that burns eternal.
If you decide to buy the book, I’d love to hear what you think about the experience that’s contained in its pages. Share your thoughts in a review on the Levenger website.
Meantime, let me hear your memories of Kennedy here. Do you find a transcending eloquence in his words? Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments.)