The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Kennedy in 1961 (Commentary)

This is in reference to John Kennedy's inaugural address, posted below.

Its first salient feature is the omnipresence of God, to an extent that would probably be unacceptable in public discourse today. But a more important consideration is that it is exclusively focused on foreign, never domestic, policy, and explicitly addressed to a foreign audience. This is an ironic juxtaposition: the idea that the non-Christian populations of the third world, the battleground between Godless communism and Godly America, might be alienated by this rhetoric seems never to have occurred to the speechwriters.

Next, consider Kennedy's repeated imagery of sacrifice and hardship: not just the famous "Ask not what your country can do for you," but over a dozen references in almost as many paragraphs to "pledges", "burdens", and so forth. Recall that Mr. Kennedy had outflanked Richard Nixon on the right, accusing him of being soft on Cuba, in the infamous televised debates; this address was in keeping with that, declaring American toughness and interventionism unhindered by self-interest.

See also Christopher Hitchens's fascinating screed against, well, everyone except President Eisenhower, in which he refers to President Kennedy's inaugural as "bombastic [and] menacing."