"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."
As much as Kennedy wanted to sit in the company of greatness, he knew that no longer could civilized men stand on fields of battle fighting each other with bullet, sword, and fire when at any moment they might be enveloped in mushroom-shaped clouds vaporizing all humanity. The young leader's great test would be in part to see whether he could define political courage in a new way for a nuclear age.
Kennedy called upon the citizenry to face the new era with intrepidness. The president wanted millions of Americans to rise out of their privatism, shake off their passivity and cynicism, and move forward in acts of sacrifice and selfless service. Since there appeared to be no great war to be won, and no immense frontier to conquer, it was unclear just where this journey would lead, or what this leader would light with the torch he raised.
Kennedy believed that as president, his overwhelming concern would lie in international affairs, and his entire speech dealt with America's relationship to the rest of the world. He said nothing of the greatest American moral dilemma of the age: the political and economic disenfranchisement of the majority of black people. Sorensen had added the only vague reference to civil rights on the eve of the inauguration when Wofford had lobbied the speechwriter to add the words "at home" to the president's commitment to human rights "at home and around the world."
Kennedy talked "to those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery," but he said nothing of the four million Americans who would have starved if not for the surplus foods the government gave them or of the tragic lives of millions of migrant laborers across America whom Edward R. Murrow had poignantly portrayed in his recent documentary Harvest of Shame.
Kennedy's eloquent idealism was a cup overflowing, and the new president's auditors heard what they wanted to hear and needed to hear, be they black ministers in the South, the poor and hungry of his own land, the peoples of Europe, or the masses of Asia and Latin America. Even Castro had reached out to the new administration, saying that he was willing to "begin anew" in his relations with the United States, while Nikita Khrushchev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the chairman of the Council of Ministers, hoped for a "radical improvement" in the two countries' relations. As Kennedy stood there on this day in which the sun could not heat the earth, he seemed to be promising warmth where there was cold, and light where men lived in darkness.
On the ride up the broad expanses of Pennsylvania Avenue, Kennedy insisted that he and Jackie ride in an open car so that people could see their new president in the clear cold air of the winter afternoon. Kennedy was not only a leader but also a leading man, and thirty-one-year-old Jackie a stunning model of a first lady. She was a woman of certain mysteries that would not be easily unraveled. She smiled with coy grace and waved her gloved hand.
There was yet another reason why so many Americans greeted this new president and first lady with such joy and anticipation. Just two months before, on November 25, 1960, Jackie had given birth to a son, John F. Kennedy Jr., and for the first time since Theodore Roosevelt's residency, the White House would be full of children's shouts and laughter. Since the day of John Jr.'s birth, the Kennedys had been inundated with telegrams, flowers, booties, sweaters, and a zoo of stuffed animals, the start of an immense fascination with the president's namesake, as well as a delighted interest in his sister, Caroline. It added to the president's aura of youthful vitality that his parents were still alive and healthy, and with so many brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, he seemed to belong not to a family but to a clan.
From The Kennedy Men by Laurence Leamer. Copyright Laurence Leamer 2001. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, William Morrow.
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