A Memorable Inaugural Address
A heavy snowstorm wreaked havoc on Washington, D.C., the night before the inauguration. Kennedy intended the inauguration to be an unforgettable ceremony supplemented with spectacular events and celebrations.
The Inaugural Ceremony
At noon on January 20, 1961, Joe, Rose, Bobby, and Jackie Kennedy strode across the Capitol steps to the platform where Jack would take the oath of office. Once all the dignitaries and guests had taken their seats, the president-elect emerged and took his seat between Eisenhower and Johnson. After an eight-minute invocation by Boston's Cardinal Cushing, Marian Anderson's strong voice led the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
During his blessing, Cardinal Cushing noticed smoke drifting up from underneath the platform and feared it was a bomb. He slowed his speech in the hope that he could stay at the podium long enough to absorb the bomb blast for Kennedy. The source of the smoke turned out to be a faulty wire, which was remedied without incident.
Anderson's stirring performance was one of Kennedy's efforts to incorporate the arts into his inauguration. Kennedy also invited Robert Frost to read a poem, and the revered poet stepped up to the podium after Lyndon Johnson had taken the vice presidential oath of office.
Frost intended to read a new poem, “Dedication,” which he had written specifically for the occasion. After a few false starts, the eighty-six-year-old Frost realized he couldn't read the speech amid the glare of the sunlight on the snow. Instead he beautifully recited “The Gift Outright” from memory.
The New President's Address
Frost's pitch-perfect recital set the stage for Kennedy's inaugural oath and address. Kennedy had worked tirelessly on the speech for months, writing and rewriting each sentence until it suited him. Influenced by Abraham Lincoln's powerful Gettysburg Address, Kennedy set out to make the greatest possible impact with the fewest possible words. He focused on his specialty — foreign affairs.
“He understood the importance of pageantry in tying the nation together. He recognized that even as the people would reject a king, their hearts tugged for the inauguration with pomp and ceremony. For that reason, he deliberately decided to invest his inauguration with pomp and ceremony.”
— Lem Billings, as quoted in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga
Kennedy laid out a promise to the nation and the world and infused his message with a tone of hope and optimism. Freedom, asserted Kennedy, was of foremost importance to the United States. He pledged to promote the cause of freedom and help eradicate poverty anywhere in the world.
He extended an offer to the Soviet Union to “begin anew.” If the two superpowers could work through their differences, Kennedy reasoned, they could work together to accomplish positive goals, such as exploring space and promoting arts and commerce.
The end of the speech, Kennedy's call to civic duty, was most memorable. National duty required Americans to act against tyranny, poverty, disease, and war. The thirty-fifth president of the United States ended his inaugural address with a call to Americans to sacrifice for the greater good.
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. 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 can do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”