“Ask Not”: 50 Years Since JFK Inaugural Address


jfk-kennedyFifty years after John F. Kennedy summoned Americans to a new generation of leadership and patriotism, one thing is clear: This is no age of Camelot.

Were it uttered by a modern politician, Kennedy’s famous “ask not” call to service might well be derided as a socialist pitch for more government. His idyllic clamoring for a united world to “explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths” could easily be dismissed by cynics as dreamy and lacking specifics.

Today’s United States is a polarized land. But looking in on the country this week, exactly a half-century since Kennedy delivered perhaps the most famous inaugural address in American history, it’s hard to keep from wondering: In the much-changed politics of 2011, which of his carefully crafted words still resonate?

“Unfortunately, in today’s environment, speeches are more likely to say, ‘Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what you can do for your party,'” says Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to both Republicans and Democrats who recently helped establish the nonpartisan organization No Labels.

The 14-minute inaugural’s Cold War-era content, shaped by a World War II veteran for a country on the brink of cultural upheaval, is certainly outdated. Here and most everywhere else, the political environment has changed.

Yet some of the most memorable imagery in Kennedy’s story line – a torch being passed to a new generation, the trumpet summoning us again – remains potent in a nation searching for renewed purpose and vision.

A Knights of Columbus-Marist survey released Wednesday found people overwhelmingly saying that the dominant ideals Kennedy outlined – among them service and freedom – remain a focus of American citizens so many years later.

As do many of the fears and trepidations.

Americans still worry about their country’s stature. Many still believe their nation was meant for something bigger. They still seek a road map to the future, fractured though their solutions may be.

“Kennedy was trying to write words for the ages,” says Richard Tofel, author of “Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.” ”Idealism and optimism are not always in style, but they continue to stand out and they continue to have real power.”

The speech, Tofel argues, still resonates partly because of Kennedy’s belief in “a deep commitment to the nobility of public service.”
Is that a tough sell today, though? Economic recovery is sluggish, unemployment high. The country is fighting two wars and political camps are deeply, sometimes angrily divided. Confidence in political leaders to solve the nation’s woes has ebbed. And change is coming ever more quickly in a nation again facing threats to its global dominance.

“It was just such a different time and a different audience with a different view on government,” says Thurston Clarke, author of “Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America.” ”It could not be delivered now, given the way government is viewed.”

There were several key differences back then:

-The threats were different. In Cold War 1961, the main concern was the Soviets. Now, it’s terrorism from extremists who are scattered across countries and often owe allegiance to none. Also looming: the economic rise of China, India and other emerging powerhouses.

-Cynicism wasn’t as overt. Mistrust didn’t pervade America’s politics to today’s extent, in part because would-be complainers – and activists – lacked a readily available way to amplify their voices. Not everyone had a printing press or access to TV or radio. Now, technological advances give a megaphone to anyone with Wi-Fi.

-Less polarization. Popular politicians were more center-right, like Richard Nixon, and center-left, like Kennedy. Now, the far right and left dominate the public discourse, and the middle of the spectrum is more muted.

-Views on government. The Great Depression, World War II and the Interstate Highway System helped build the perception of government as a positive force. Now, after years of partisan gridlock, conservatives and many independents have soured on Washington and see federal expansion under President Barack Obama as a problem, not a solution.

“It was almost a naive confidence at that time that if the government set their mind to it, they can succeed,” says John Murphy, a rhetoric expert at the University of Illinois who is writing a book about Kennedy’s presidential speeches.

Now, he says, “people are hopeful, but they’re also dubious about how government can solve all these problems.”

Consider the evidence.

It’s in the words of the millions of Americans who fret about a sickly economy and foreign competition. It’s in the divided government that voters installed in November, forcing Obama to reach across the aisle for solutions to the nation’s biggest problems.

It’s in the debate over civility in the American political discourse. It is visible in how Americans of all political stripes, after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, praised Obama’s call for a more civil, honest dialogue.

Said Obama, “I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

The era in which Kennedy delivered his inaugural address has receded. R. Sargent Shriver, the president’s brother-in-law and a lion in his own right, died Tuesday. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s counselor and speechwriter, died last fall. The final brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is gone, and the family is absent from Congress for the first time since 1946.

Just two years ago, Obama began his presidency with support across the political spectrum and frequent comparisons to Kennedy – both for his eloquence and his vision of an exceptional America.

Next week, Obama faces one of his administration’s landmark speeches – a State of the Union address halfway through his first term. Will he try to answer the questions that have haunted generations of Americans trying to understand the nation’s place in the world? Will he punch through the static and come through with something memorable?

Fifty years after Kennedy’s words, in the cacophony of the 21st century, can a single speech still make a difference?

{Kansas City.com/Matzav.com}


  1. I think Obama was out with the flu on the week his class learned about Kennedy.
    Kennedy’s words and deeds still resound, and Obama’s mistakes are doing the same…..

  2. At http://matzav.com/breaking-news-senator-ted-kennedy-dead-at-age-77, I posted the following account. As it is also relevant now, I will post it here too.

    This article informs us that this week was the passing of the last son-in-law of this generation of the Kennedy family, and that today was the anniversary of what was probably the signature line of President Kennedy. Therefore, it is appropriate to, B’Ezras HaShem, try to briefly review and analyze some key points of that legacy.

    I. The father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, was a severely terrible Sonei Yisroel. He had admiration for Hitler and stated that he “understood” Hitler’s hatred of Jews. When he was the United States Ambassador to England, he strongly advocated for the western countries to not oppose the Nazis. Needless to say, this greatly irritated those who recognized the dangerous German threat; eventually, the US government terminated his ambassadorship.

    He had made a prestigious shidduch with marrying the daughter of the Mayor of Boston, Rose Fitzgerald. After that though, he was not loyal to her and was thus often away from home.

  3. III. Probably the biggest problem with the Kennedy brothers was that, very unfortunately, they did carry on and probably even well surpassed their father’s terrible immoral behavior. As our Torah leaders teach us to avoid talking about such subjects, we will keep this discussion limited.

    1.) When President John and his wife Jacqueline would attend a party, afterwards, Jacqueline would often have to return home BY HERSELF, for John would go off.

    2.) There was an extremely famous actress who became involved with President John and his brother Robert. Tragically, on August 5, 1962, she died young at age 36. Her death was declared, Lo Alaynu, a “suicide”; however, the circumstances of the event were very suspicious. Several conspiracy theories thus emerged that stated that she was really murdered, possibly from Kennedy orders. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Marilyn_Monroe#21st_century_investigations_of_Monroe) —

    3.) On the night of July 18, 1969, Senator Edward attended a campaign reunion party at Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. Latter, he offered to drive one of his brother Robert’s secretaries, Miss Mary Jo Kopechne, back to her hotel. On the way, the car veered off onto a side road that crosses a large pond with a narrow wooden bridge. As the car came onto the bridge, it slipped off into the water. Edward was able to get out, but could not get out Mary Jo. He did not call any emergency services though; instead, he walked back to the party and got two people to try who also failed. Even then, they still did not call any services.

    The next morning, two boys came there, saw the submerged automobile, and immediately called the police. Examination of the scene revealed that even after going in the water, Mary Jo could have easily been saved if professional rescue workers had come right away.

    Edward’s claims that it had all been a terrible accident and that he and his friends had tried to save her and that he had been too shook up to actually call the police — which he openly admitted was “inexcusable,” were, understandably, all viewed with tremendous skepticism. To this day, there are vast numbers of people who firmly believe that this was a clearly planned pre-meditative deed of outright murder, which was probably done to cover up something.

    I well remember when Senator Edward attempted to run for president, that one of the sons of the family I was staying by asked me what was this Chappaquiddick thing. So I told him. At that, the guy exclaimed:

    “WOW!! HE DUMPED THE GIRL!! (If he would be

    Countless people were further enraged when virtually no action by law enforcement was taken on Mr. Kennedy.
    Furthermore, term after term after term, the voters in Massachusetts overwhelmingly voted him back into his senate office where he served for four more decades until his death about a year and a half ago.

  4. IV. Despite his lack of meaningful T’shuva, after Chappaquiddick, Senator Edward became much more serious in nature. He “got down to work” in the Senate and produced extensive arrays of legislation in his long career. His activism though, was on the liberal side of politics.

    Now, in the era of his older brothers, the main liberal causes were that of treating Negro race people with basic human dignity, giving farm employees safe working conditions, and helping the destitute poor. These were, for the most part, certainly noble endeavors. There also was the complex issue of the Vietnam War; President John and Robert initially strongly supported it, but latter, Senator Robert strongly opposed it.

    As time went on though, the liberal issues — which now Senator Edward was the forceful leader of — became agendas to restructure human society with a total breakdown of the religious/moral standards that hitherto had been the basis of human civilization. These included: women’s “liberation” — for women to become like men, women’s “rights” to have abortions, and “rights” for Toeva people.

  5. V. There certainly was an intense infatuation with the Kennedy brothers, which aptly was known as the “Kennedy Mystique.” Probably the height of this mystique came with the presidential career of the son John. The campaign had been a choice of (then) Vice President Richard Nixon, who was viewed as being the successor — and the continuation — of the previous ELDERLY President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the new YOUNG Senator John Kennedy. When John won the election, everyone’s deam was realized.

    The pinacle of this height came with this address that President John delivered at the inauguration. In this brief but powerful speech, he utilized brilliant poetic expression to state the country’s ideals: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . ” He concluded with what was certainly to be one of the key statements of US history: “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.” (The full text can be seen at: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Speeches/JFK/003POF03Inaugural01201961.htm.)

    The nation was electrified. Here was a call for idealism; here was a call for people to rise above their petty “give me” selfishness and do something for the world. Then though, just 1,000 days latter, less than three years latter, on November 22, 1963, President John was assassinated, and this quintessence was shattered. So, understandably, there was a tremendous yearning and hope that each of the next two brothers would somehow restore it.

    Senator Robert’s presidential campaign in 1968 was filled with an extremely intense tremendous energy; people somehow felt that he would be the one who would be able to bring the country together and resolve the knotty problems it was beset with. At the climax of the primary season, Robert won the biggest prize, the primary in California. It was obvious what was to come next. “Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!” were his last public words.

    Minutes latter on that night of June 6, 1968, though, was the sound of gunshots; the blood chilling shrieks of supporters realizing what had just happened well expressed the unbearable pain of the double blow.

    When the following year, Senator Edward had his disgraceful scandal at Chappaquiddick, coupled with eleven years latter that his presidential bid did not materialize, it all was a triple blow.

    The yearning — and dismay — certainly came to a climax in the summer of 1980 at the Democratic National Convention in New York City. I well remember one of the photographs taken inside Madison Square Garden; it was of people who were crying as Senator Edward gave the announcement that he was withdrawing his candidacy.

    While it was decided that he was not going to be the candidate, he was chosen to deliver the convention’s keynote address. That was certainly to be one last flash of that brilliant Kennedy poetic eloquence. With his powerful voice, he gave a very emotional conclusion to his words:

    ” . . . And someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down, and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our Party in 1980 that we found our faith again . . . For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die!”

    (Full text can be seen at: http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/tedkennedy.htm)

    Yes, poetic declarations of lofty goals are very, very beautiful and extremely inspiring. Our Torah teaches us though, that idealistic words need to be followed with idealistic actions of elevation, decency, and integrity. And, the most important question is: which lofty goals are they? Are they goals of raising mankind up to serve HaShem?? Or, are they “goals” of ignoring G-D’s instructions in order to allow and even encourage human behavior to be thrown down to the depths of depravity??

    L’Aniyus Da’ati, these are some of the items we need to think about when we analyze the Kennedy legacy.

  6. II. The sons though, did not continue their father’s terrible Sinas Yisroel or Ahavas Hitler.

    1.) The oldest son, Joseph Junior, actually served in the US military in the European theater of World War II and was killed in a plane explosion there. The next son, John Fitzgerald, who latter became president, in 1940 wrote a book titled: “Why England Slept”; it was a complement to Winston Churchill’s earlier book “While England Slept,” which had sharply criticized England’s initial appeasement of Hitler.

    When he was president, there was a remarkable incident with the Jewish community as follows. There had been irritation over a particular US vote in the United Nations. So the administration called a meeting with the heads of major Jewish organizations, one of whom was Rav Moshe Sherer, ZT’L, of Agudath Israel of America. The scheduled date of the conference though, was the day of the ninth of Av — Tisha B’Av! Rav Sherer tried to get it rescheduled, but the White House responded that there was not another time. So Rav Sherer consulted the Gadol HaDor, Rav Aharon Kotler, ZT’L. Rav Aharon told him to go to the meeting; in the conversation, Rav Aharon gave Rav Sherer a long explanation of the current political situation. Rav Sherer was quite surprised, for Rav Aharon was well known as a holy saint who was totally immersed in the D’var HaShem of our holy Torah.

    The conference was extremely positive and successful. When the president spoke individually with each organization director and came to Rav Sherer, he asked him several questions. Rav Sherer was able to answer them only because of the information and analysis that Rav Aharon had told him!

  7. 2.) In his 1968 presidential campaign, the next son, Senator Robert Francis, projected a rabid support of Israel, probably more than the other candidates. He joined Israel Independence Day parades and often spoke at various Jewish centers. Upon his assassination, the person who was claimed to be the murderer was a Palestinian immigrant from Jordan called Sirhan Sirhan. He vehemently hated Jews and Israel, and proudly stated that he killed Senator Robert for his strong pro-Israel stance.

    3.) The next son, Senator Edward Moore, continued and enhanced Robert’s Jewish/Israel support. In the 1980 presidential campaign, in his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination, Edward still received a very significant portion of the Jewish vote in the primary elections. In 1983, he was honored at the annual dinner of Agudath Israel; Rav Moshe Sherer presented him with a beautifully framed Mezzuza that he had originally planned to give his brother Robert for his extensive assistance, but was unable to because of the assassination. Upon Senator Edward’s death, Matzav posted an article about how the leaders of Israel expressed great sadness at the senator’s passing and deep appreciation for what he had done for Israel and the Jewish community.