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JFK's Inaugural Address

John Simkin

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Interesting article in today's Guardian about the writing of Kennedy's resonant inaugural address of January 1961.

The speech is now acclaimed as one of the classics of American political rhetoric, fit to stand with the outpourings of Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Almost every schoolchild of the 1960s was brought up on that speech, with its key invocation, "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."

It was characteristic of Sorensen's modesty, and of his wit, and no doubt of his boredom with the subject, that when – many years after Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 – an interviewer asked him what his part had been in the writing of that speech, he replied: "Ask not!"

It is agreed that several gifted hands, including that of Adlai Stevenson, contributed to it, and that Kennedy dictated it to his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, on a plane, using a draft written for him by Sorensen. The dispute centres on how much Kennedy used that draft.

In 2005, two rival scholars, after poring over the speech and its antecedents line by line and almost word by word, came to two opposite conclusions. Thurston Clarke proclaimed that new evidence showed that Kennedy was indeed the author. Richard J Tofel, on the other hand, an executive at the Wall Street Journal, found that Kennedy was responsible for no more than 14 of the speech's 51 sentences, and that "if we must identify" one man as the author of the speech, "that man must surely be not John Kennedy but Theodore Sorensen". It seems, though, that the famous "ask not" trope itself had its origin in Kennedy's years at the Choate school, a boarding establishment in Connecticut, whose headteacher liked to urge his pupils to ask "not what Choate does for you, but what you can do for Choate".



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