Not long after January 20, 1961, a young writer left his good job in New York City and moved his family to Washington, D.C., to find work in government. He was answering the call his president had just made to the American people: to ask what he could do for his country. He was giving back, before it was called giving back.
The writer was David McCullough. The president was John F. Kennedy. And the now iconic “ask not” statement in JFK’s Inaugural Address was not quite what Kennedy was supposed to say.
At the last millisecond—right as he was delivering his address that bitterly cold, blazingly bright day—Kennedy changed a word in the famous sentence. It wasn’t an isolated change either. JFK made more than 35 changes to his speech as he delivered it.
“Let both sides join to invoke the wonders of science” was written, but he said, “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science.” Elsewhere “the next task” became a more august “the new endeavor.”
Echoes of Jefferson, Lincoln and Churchill
Kennedy had an ear for oratory. He’d been informally schooled in the Churchillian method as a 22-year-old in 1939, where sitting in the Houses of Parliament he heard Churchill expound against Hitler. JFK wanted his inaugural address to be brief, as Jefferson’s had been. And he wanted to pay tribute to Lincoln:
Lincoln, 1861: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”
Kennedy, 1961: “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”
How do I know this? This and far more is laid out artfully in our big book on the making of JFK’s Inaugural Address.
We published it two years ago, intending it to be a window into the mind of a great reader and thinker. As I revisit this book now, on the fiftieth anniversary of what some scholars call the last great oratory of the twentieth century, I see more than I did at first.
History for the next generation
Certainly it is the history of a great speech and a defining moment in the American presidency. But it is also my history, and my generation’s (even though most of us were too young to remember watching the televised address). In some ways we are only now coming into that history, finding our own ways to give back.
And it is my parents’ history as well. When Kennedy announced that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” he meant those we now call the Greatest Generation, the ones of the shared sacrifice of World War II.
Most history books retreat to bookshelves. This one we designed to be imposing and elegant, so that it might linger on coffee tables and fool readers into thinking they can lift its startlingly real-looking historical facsimiles right off the page. (In the age of electronic books, this is one way the technology of paper should compete.)
And now I’m going to put this book into my sons’ hands. At this golden anniversary of JFK’s speech, my sons are the age Kennedy was when he heard Churchill.
I want my young men to find in it not only the human workings behind a speech that seems superhuman, but also a part of who their parents are, and their grandparents were. Kennedy can help us pass the torch to a new generation, yet again.
Is there a book you want to give young people as a window into history? I’d love to hear. Just click on the Comments link below with your thoughts. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments.)