Ask not … how time passes

What’s the most famous line in the history of presidential inauguration speeches?

Ask not …

It was 50 years ago today that President John F. Kennedy uttered those words. JFK, in announcing his New Frontier, told Americans they needed to work for the good of the country, not rely on the country to care for them.

“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy said on that ice-cold, crystal-clear day in Washington, D.C. “Ask what you can for for your country.”

It’s interesting to look at photos of that day, with the vital young Kennedy in stark contrast to the aging general, Dwight Eisenhower, who had just ended his presidency.

Eisenhower was the 34th president and JFK the 35th. The 36th and 37th president were on the same platform. Lyndon Johnson had just been sworn in as vice president, replacing Richard Nixon.

Kennedy’s speech was written in collaboration with his brilliant speechwriter, adviser and friend Ted Sorensen, who died last year. Sorensen also co-wrote, at the very least, “Profiles in Courage,” which won JFK a Pulitzer prize.

The address was an immediate success and was hailed that day as a landmark in presidential speeches. Kennedy’s presidency was off to a flying start, although it soon bogged down due to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, squabbles with Congress and a growing tension with the Soviet Union.

JFK’s greatest successes as a president happened in the closing months of his administration. His speeches at American University and in Berlin promoted the idea of peace and Kennedy signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty weeks before he was killed.

After that dark day in Dallas, some of Kennedy’s friends and staffers said he planned to withdraw from Vietnam after the 1964 election. Of course, we will never know if that is true or not.

What we do know is that John Fitzgerald Kennedy inspired millions of people and showed a great deal of promise as a president. He is the James Dean of American politics, a handsome youngster who provided a fleeting glimpse of what he might accomplish.

Both men become icons in death, mythologized and denounced, celebrated and scorned. JFK’s sordid, reckless and foolish private life has reduced his stature for some but he remains a popular president who is still highly regarded, as much for what he did as for what he may have done.

To see and hear JFK’s most famous phrase, click on the link below: