October 24, 2004: Headlines: Presidents - Kennedy: San Fransisco Chronicle: "Kennedy was more than the 'principal architect' of his inaugural address; he was its stonecutter and mason, too."

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Special Reports: January 18, 2005: Ask Not: October 24, 2004: Headlines: Presidents - Kennedy: San Fransisco Chronicle: "Kennedy was more than the 'principal architect' of his inaugural address; he was its stonecutter and mason, too."
Ask Not Date: January 18 2005 No: 388 Ask Not
As our country prepares for the inauguration of a President, we remember one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century and how his words inspired us. "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-141-157-13-244.balt.east.verizon.net - on Tuesday, January 18, 2005 - 1:20 pm: Edit Post

"Kennedy was more than the 'principal architect' of his inaugural address; he was its stonecutter and mason, too."

 Kennedy was more than the 'principal architect' of his inaugural address; he was its stonecutter and mason, too.

"Kennedy was more than the 'principal architect' of his inaugural address; he was its stonecutter and mason, too."

JFK wrote his own 'ask not' speech

Thurston Clarke debunks myth that it was written by assistant Ted Sorenson

Reviewed by Edward J. Renehan Jr.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Ask Not

The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America

By Thurston Clarke

HENRY HOLT & CO.; 253 Pages; $25
Garry Wills' Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 best-seller "Lincoln at Gettysburg" started a trend. Today, 12 years later, a multitude of books elaborate on such great rhetorical moments as Lincoln's 1860 speech at Cooper Union and Churchill's 1946 definition of the "Iron Curtain" in remarks at Fulton, Mo. Thus it was just a matter of time before John F. Kennedy's inaugural address got its due. In "Ask Not," Thurston Clarke (author of nine books, including "Pearl Harbor Ghosts" and "Lost Hero") provides an insightful and fascinating analysis of not only Kennedy's text but also the political geography in which it was framed and, most important, the sources of its composition.

Every literate American recalls the essence of the words John Kennedy spoke on the steps of the U.S. Capitol that cold morning of Jan. 20, 1961. Acknowledging that man now held "in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life," Kennedy insisted that the message must "go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace. ... 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 to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

After raising the stick of Cold War resolve, JFK took care to also dangle a carrot of cooperation. "[L]et 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."

Kennedy went on to note that the work at hand would not be finished in the first 100 days of his administration, nor the first 1,000 days, nor "perhaps in our lifetime on this planet." Nevertheless, he announced, "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." Ernest Hemingway watched the inauguration on a hallway television at the Mayo Clinic (where he was on a suicide watch) and then roused himself long enough to write a brief note: "It is a good thing to have a brave man as our President in times as tough as these for our country and the world." Lewis Mumford called JFK's speech "a fresh wind from the high slopes of an older America." Meanwhile, the New York Times' James Reston enthused that "the evangelical and transcendental spirit of America has not been better expressed since Woodrow Wilson and maybe not even since Ralph Waldo Emerson."

Yes, but whose words was JFK speaking? Dozens of biographers have singled out Kennedy's assistant Ted Sorenson as the chief author of the inaugural address, a task he supposedly accomplished in collaboration with various advisers. Using previously unavailable documentation, Clarke debunks this myth.

Luckily for history, Kennedy's longtime secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, made a fetish of retrieving crumpled foolscap from the trash cans beneath her boss' numerous desks (a habit JFK found exasperating). Using Lincoln's extensive hoard of documents, Clarke traces the genesis of Kennedy's speech to a draft he dictated during a flight from Washington to Palm Beach, 10 days before the inauguration. What is more, Clarke deftly demonstrates that Sorenson's own chief contributions to the speech -- in the form of one memo drafted before Kennedy's dictation and several slight revisions thereafter -- were merely an amalgam of ideas and themes Kennedy himself had originated extemporaneously on the stump during the late campaign. In the end, Sorenson comes off as what he's always claimed to be: not Kennedy's ghostwriter, but his scribe. And Kennedy? He comes off as a skilled, eloquent and inspired craftsman. As Clarke writes: "Kennedy was more than the 'principal architect' of his inaugural address; he was its stonecutter and mason, too."

Within a week of the speech, Kennedy received postcards and cables of praise from Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Conrad Aiken, Mark Rothko, Lincoln Kirsten and Carl Sandburg. Nevertheless, the comment he reportedly valued most highly derived from an unliterary source: Hamlin Turner, the onetime Harvard classmate of JFK's older brother Joe, who died in World War II. In a note to the new president, Turner remembered an ancient, all- night bull session with Joe during which the conversation had touched on Jack. "Joseph said (and I quote as well as my memory serves) 'The kid has always been able to say the right thing when he has to. I never have. I think you'll hear him say the right things some time.' "

And so we did.

Edward J. Renehan Jr. is a writer and historian in Rhode Island.

When this story was posted in January 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: San Fransisco Chronicle

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