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Opinion

Opinion: President Kennedy's Inaugural, Then and Now

Jan 19, 2011 – 10:51 AM
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Bob Lehrman

Bob Lehrman Contributor

Fifty years ago Thursday, a White House aide went out to the east side of the Capitol, climbed steps shoveled clean of snow, and sat down to watch a new president deliver the most remembered inaugural address in history.

That was appropriate. Ted Sorensen, who died last year, wrote much of JFK's speech, the anniversary of which has brought the usual enthusiastic reminders of its iconic status and influence.

"These ideals ... still resonate," one historian said recently, pointing to its "call to service ... emphasis on change and ... faith in the future."

But is that the right way to remember it? Even for people who admire Kennedy, does it still "resonate"? If you watch, read and read about the speech, the reality is more complicated.

In a Jan. 20, 1961 file photo, U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (AP)
AP
U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address Jan. 20, 1961, after taking the oath of office at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Take JFK's call to support "human rights," which asserts something clearly false: that they are "rights to which this nation has always been committed." And Sorensen's own account makes clear how timid Kennedy was about civil rights, finally adding just two words ("at home"), while rejecting a bolder approach.

Then there's this chest-thumping bellicosity: "Let every nation know ... 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."

Any foe? Any price? Sorensen has defended that line, saying critics should read the "rest of the speech."

But how different is that from the Goldwater line ("Extremism in defense of liberty ...") Americans rejected four years later? "Any price" wasn't hyperbole. It reflected a belief for which Americans and Vietnamese paid a horrible one.

Kennedy's echo of the Monroe Doctrine wasn't costly. Just deceptive. Warning other countries to lay off "aggression or subversion" against our "sister republics" to the south, Kennedy said, "this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house."

Our earlier intervention in Guatemala, and later ones in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Chile and Nicaragua demonstrated something less noble: whether by our own aggression or subversion, it was the U.S. that wanted to be the master.

Even some stylistic devices now seem flawed. That "never negotiate out of fear" couplet? Negotiations usually involve fear -- that if you don't cut a deal, your enemies might pick up all the marbles. Rhetorical devices should make something true sound memorable, not make something false sound true.

Still, there's something unfair about judging a speech with the hindsight of 50 years. Of course the fictions and bad guesses endemic to politics become more visible over time. Many things in the inaugural remain admirable.

One startling example: its appropriation, as Ronald Reagan did later, of Lincoln's line about "the last best hope." Lincoln and Reagan used it to pat ourselves on the back -- describing the United States. Kennedy? He's describing the U.N, even hinting that arms control could be under U.N. "control." What president would dare do that today?

There are other nuggets worth savoring: sympathy for those living in "mass misery" across "half the globe"; the novel admission that countries could choose between abolishing "human poverty and ... human life"; the decision to call Communist countries not "enemies," but the olive-branch-like "adversaries." True, this was columnist Walter Lippmann's suggestion, in that time when pundits felt free not just to write about the powerful but help them out. Good idea, anyhow.

Finally, there's another virtue: style, which means not just alliteration, repetition, segmentation ("To those ... who"), and Sorensen's favorite, of which the speech's most celebrated line ("Ask not...") is one of about 15 examples: antithesis. It also means the way Sorensen characterizes Kennedy: a flicker of wit here, a dose of humility there, a likable eagerness to accept challenge; and despite the spin, a hard, gracefully phrased undercurrent of realism, whether in the admission that "sincerity is always subject to proof," or that as we ask God's blessing "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."

"While my opinion cannot be objective," Sorensen wrote later, as if complimenting someone else, "that speech surely ranks among the best of all inaugurals in the 20th century."

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Well, the standard for inaugurals is low. Fifty years later, the best way to approach a speech shot through with realism is by being realistic. Sorensen and Kennedy combined insight and blindness, truth and fiction, language that deceives and language that inspires, and an appeal based as much on personality and rhetoric as on ideas.

"Resonance" today? It's there, though not just in ways Sorensen or Kennedy intended. We talk about the "former" Soviet Union today and see that some issues frightening us can actually go away, like the Cold War.

And because rhetoric isn't everything in a speech, there is one other unfortunate way the speech might resonate.

For if we actually watch it, watch the bare-headed man reading, watch his wife in her matching white hat and coat, chin tilted up, eyes unwaveringly upon him, we remember something that last week's events remind us hasn't gone away at all: the lingering sadness of young lives cut short.

Bob Lehrman, author of six books including "The Political Speechwriter's Companion," was chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. He co-runs the blog PunditWire.
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