Kerry Speaks On 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

Today marks the 50 anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address:

On a frigid day, exactly 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy took office with the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” The world had high hopes for this dashing fellow from Boston — at just 43, the youngest president elected to office, and the only Catholic. 

The 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s Inauguration has been met with quite a bit of fanfare as BLTWY notes: “Kennedy will be honored this week with celebrations worthy of a king.”

The public’s relationships with politicians are generally complicated, but the day Kennedy was assassinated, less than three years into his presidency, one might say America’s affair was frozen in time, unable to ever run its natural course.

“There was no finished resolution, for however you felt about him. You don’t know what the end of the story is,” said Shannon Perich, associate curator at the National Museum of American History, who co-authored, The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family with photographer Richard Avedon.

“Whatever was going to happen was cut short … his legacy was unfulfilled,” she told BLTWY.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry delivered remarks today in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Kerry addressed the long, enduring legacy of President Kennedy’s inaugural while highlighting its lasting lessons for foreign policy, arms control, and political discourse. The noon ceremony in Washington included remarks from Vice President Joe Biden, Caroline Kennedy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ky.)

The full text of Senator Kerry’s speech, as prepared, is below:

Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Majority Leader Reid, Distinguished colleagues, Members of the Kennedy Family – Ladies and Gentlemen:

I was about to turn 17 as a high school junior when I gave my first political speech –a rousing endorsement at morning assembly of Candidate Kennedy against Vice President Nixon. So rousing that in our school’s mock election that followed, Jack Kennedy lost in a landslide.

At my overwhelmingly Republican by birthright campus, there was no need for a recount – but somehow despite this local verdict, on November 8th, in the real election, John Kennedy became our nation’s 35th President.

And so fifty years ago today I found myself heavily invested in watching the Inauguration on a tiny, grainy black and white television screen. I still remember the sparkling sun on the new snow, and the slippery streets and wintery wonder of the nation’s capitol. I was touched by the spontaneous gesture of a newly minted Vice President Johnson who rose from his seat and wielded his top hat to shade the pages on the lectern so Robert Frost could read aloud the words of “The Gift Outright.”

But the real magic was yet to come. It took President Kennedy just 1,355 words to summon a new generation and set in motion generations of service and sacrifice – to reignite the fires of idealism and patriotism in millions of Americans.

In the 1960’s, some would answer the call fighting in a war while some would protest the war — and some would do both. Thousands would follow John Lewis and march for civil rights in Alabama and Mississippi; and still others would follow an American idealist named Sargent Shriver as ambassadors of peace in villages across the hemisphere and around the earth.

In the 14 minutes it took President Kennedy to deliver his inaugural address, he also reshaped American foreign policy for the Nuclear Age, a time of which he rightly said the instruments of war had “far outpaced” the instruments of peace. This was the vision of a President, himself “tempered by war,” who saw the Nuclear Age for what it was – an era in which cooperation, with “those who would make themselves our adversary,” was essential, not only to the security of our country but to the survival of our planet. And so he offered a challenge and a pledge to all of us – ‘never negotiate out of fear,’ but even more importantly, ‘never fear to negotiate.’

John Kennedy came to the Presidency with the hard earned conviction that leadership required resolve and restraint — hard thinking and hard bargaining. He bent history in the direction of peace with the first major arms control agreement of the post-war world — the Test Ban Treaty of 1963. And on the path he set, we have moved forward for half a century to reduce the number and danger of nuclear arms on our planet – all through the “long twilight struggle, year in and year out,” and then from the SALT negotiations to the START Treaty we ratified just weeks ago.

And today, when you hear his words anew, listen for more even than a call to service, more even than a call to peace. Hear the echo of a President speaking to us in this bitter time of partisan division. Despite the span of years and the heartbreak of so many losses, with the power of poetry matched to the appeal of reason, John Fitzgerald Kennedy summons all of us today to overcome the cacophony of ideology and infighting that now so pervasively masquerades as political debate. We need to take wisdom and heart from his timeless advice on where to go from here.

We do well to remember his words: an election, is “not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom,” not an end but a beginning “signifying renewal, as well as change.”

As he said, “United there is little we cannot do,” but “divided, there is little we can do – for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.”

And so, fifty years to the day, fifty years to the very minute fast approaching, his words still command us anew to march forward—and with “good conscience” to let history be “the final judge” of what we do, so that together now in 2011 as it was in 1961, as he said — all of us can “go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be own.”

This morning I received a review copy of Let Every Nation Know, just in time to celebrate Kennedy’s impact on our nation in my own way, listening to the nearly 80 minute CD of JFK “in his own words,” that is part of the multimedia set. Kennedy’s legacy to our country will always live on in his words, words that have inspired our nation for generations.

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