Becoming JFK: A Profile in Communication

By Vito N. Silvestri | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
The Inaugural Address

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

John F. Kennedy

Decades after its original presentation, John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address continues to resonate with other generations, and it is ranked among the world's greatest orations. Its contribution to American public discourse is comparable to the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Kennedy's Inaugural, the first by a president born in the twentieth century, was also the first to discuss the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the first since Franklin Roosevelt's First and Second Inaugurals, to become a model of excellence for future ones. Published in Petersen Treasury of the World's Great Speeches (a book Kennedy read while recuperating from back operations in 1954), and in Boutwell Great Speeches from Pericles to Kennedy, the Kennedy Inaugural Address has averaged publication in twenty anthologies yearly and endures as one of the most quotable of inaugural addresses. One quotation about the defense of freedom is inscribed in marble at Runymede, England. 1

Standing hatless and coatless in freezing twenty-three-degree weather, Kennedy reexamined international developments in terms of American ideology and nuclear politics, making carefully crafted thematic statements that would lead the way to nuclear containment and the reduction of world tensions.

The theme of freedom informed Kennedy's Inaugural Address. It was like a shining wash of light that illuminated all the choices Kennedy described. And with the clarity of his words, he changed the national landscape of political thought, enfranchising young Americans who had been raised in a climate of nuclear tension, but who were already seeking alternatives.

Kennedy drew attention to the Inauguration as an occasion for an orderly transfer of power, to dramatize this normative occurrence every

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