Fifty years ago today, January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered his only inaugural address. The address was among the shortest inaugurals ever presented…just 1364 words…and took 14 minutes from start-to-end. However, American Rhetoric magazine recognized this address as one of the best speeches of the 20th Century…second only to Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Kennedy’s words still resonate today. The memorable injunction: "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country,” was a clarion call for a renewed commitment to government service. As President, Kennedy wished America to resume its old mission as the first nation dedicated to the revolution of human rights. With the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps (Sargent Shriver, the program’s first director, passed away recently), he brought American idealism to the aid of developing nations.
(Interestingly, in a recent survey undertaken by AARP, 70% of Americans believe that the country has not yet lived up to Kennedy’s inaugural challenge.)
Who wrote the speech’s magnificent phrase… "Ask not…"? Ted Sorensen (who also passed away recently) was Kennedy’s advisor, speechwriter, and “intellectual blood bank,” and widely regarded as having a strong hand with this unforgettable expression. Throughout the years, Sorensen has loyally maintained a speechwriter’s code of silence with regard to the authorship of these words.
Following a talk that Ted Sorensen gave regarding his life and times, during the Q & A he was asked if the words were his...or JFK's. His brilliant response to the questioner was…“Ask not!”