"In short, there's simply not a more congenial spot...." The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, January 20, 1961.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Washington, D.C. loves commemorations, not least because every one who is anyone expects to have one for herself.
Thus, it was inevitable that the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of America's 35th president should be celebrated with suitable doings and, of course, well honed and well considered words. And so they were.
In the grand rotunda of the Capitol, congressional officials, aides, and Kennedy family members listened in silence to the 14-minute, 1,355 word inaugural address which set the tone for the day and for the just installed administration, Camelot on the Potomac.
One of a handful of justifiably famous and influential presidential speeches.
Like all sentient Americans, I watched the original proceedings closely. I was just about to be 14, but the memories of this event are etched in my mind, whether because I truly recall them... or I have seen the various news clips played over and over again, images which now seem not so much historical, as legendary. Just as the Kennedys, as embodied in the wire-pulling patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had long schemed for this day, wanted.
The speech itself was a gem... and can and should be read carefully and recited frequently by all people in politics, government, non profit organizations, the military and for all wanting to know the secret to inciting words to move multitudes. Like it or not (and some did not), the world knew it was hearing a brand new voice.
Every word of this inaugural address reads as if it were written to be chiseled in stone, and so they are a few blocks from me where one of the famous lines after another is found in the most durable of stones, so that sun-bathing students and fatigued tourists (and perhaps others) can be well and truly reminded of this day, this man, these remarks... and of what America then was and can never be again.
But we must not assume, even in this most famous of speeches, that the multitudes and their text-messaging descendents remember these lines well and truly... so I shall take it upon myself to remind my fellow citizens of these; they are but a few of all the verbal diamonds revealed that day.
"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."
"So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."
"All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps on our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."
"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
The words were few, simple, ample to arrest the attention of the world. It was so very different from the Eisenhower administration and its dowdy, word-challenged leader now departing. That administration, whatever its achievements, suddenly seemed so very dated indeed.
Theodore Sorensen the necessary craftsman, behind the scenes, his ideas and discretion front and center.
Sorensen (deceased 2010) was just the kind of helper every ambitious individual needs, for he was bright, a man who understood just how great speeches and their important messages must be done... and self-effacing to a degree. He was content to be an unsung part of History... and so he loved and served, never revealing the many shattering confidences he knew... and which went to the grave with him.
Thus, Sorensen proved his allegiance to the Kennedys and their images were always more important than mere historical accuracy. His speech was designed to be important, memorable, the stuff of great dreams and greater glories. How pleased Sorensen must have been as he sat and listened, invisible, as his words seized the nation and the world. He was where history was made... for he composed it.
That night another legendary event took place, the new President's inaugural ball... but the cynosure of every eye was the new, dazzling, alluring 31-year old First Lady, Jacqueline.
She knew a thing or two about style and presentation; so much so that she designed her ball ensemble herself with the help of Bergdorf Goodman's Ethan Frankau. It was the beginning of the "Jackie Look".... and it took hold like wild-fire, demanding of women (and their men) glamor, high style, sophistication, everything the Eisenhowers and their worn out officials conspicuously lacked.
And so, as Jack and Jackie made their rounds, ball by ball, as the worst winter in Washington in memory snarled traffic and tempers, the high spirited, triumphant Kennedys came; Camelot on the Potomac was born... and it stuck.
Camelot, of course, was the Broadway musical by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music). It was based on one of the loveliest and most compelling of books, "The Once and Future King" by Theodore H. White, who seemed expressly invented for his role in legend making. In 1960 the much lauded musical hit Broadway; January 20, 1961 it hit the world, as this regal figure set up shop in the White House, with her exquisite taste and frosty hauteur.
Now it was 50 years later. Most of the great figures of this day and age are dead; brother-in-law Sargent Shriver leaving the stage aged 95, January 18, 2011, for perhaps the first time gaining a march on his famous relation.
The rest now look aged, infirm, burdened perhaps by their connection to events now fading and imperfectly remembered which have long held them hostage.
These are the Kennedys and perhaps it is significant that on the date of this 50th anniversary there was, for the first time in over 60 years, no Kennedy in the Congress. Boasts were made about how long that unnatural condition for them and for America would last... but it was harsh reality for now, as the New Frontier recedes and the dynasty shows the ravishments of time, which they once assaulted and shaped.