Updated at 7:48 a.m. on January 20.
On the steps of the Capitol 50 years ago today, poet Robert Frost came prepared to declare the day lit by the “glory of a next Augustan age.” But the sun and frigid winds kept Frost from delivering the verse he’d written for the occasion, so he settled on one he had memorized, “The Gift Outright.”
"The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people."
But the sentiments of glory and grandeur were entirely keeping with the day, the most optimistic of the 20th century and perhaps the last best moment in American politics. That’s not nostalgia talking; the interceding five decades have been rife with wars, assassinations, scandals, uneven economic expansions, and a cratering of public faith in government.
John F. Kennedy, in an address roughly half the length of the preceding 44 inaugurals, told us we’d try to avoid that: “Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need -- not as a call to battle, though embattled we are -- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation, a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
Fifty years later, what does it matter? Does the sanguine majesty of the first of Kennedy’s thousand days hold any relevant purchase in the country today? After all, some 210 million Americans were born after Kennedy took office, many of their images of the man are confined by myths, conspiracies, and a ghastly video reel. And the drift of Kennedy’s presidency, particularly its first two years, did little to manifest the promise of his “let the word go forth” boldness. From a belated conversion on civil rights to an embarrassing run at the Bay of Pigs to an aimless policy in Vietnam and Laos, the policies did not match the rhetoric from the speech written by Ted Sorensen.
It was Vietnam, at the time benign distraction 9,000 miles away, that would become the embodiment of the contradiction; it was here, in the words of writer Charles P. Pierce, that “all those Sorensian thunderclaps that ended up echoing as millions of dead Asians” and 60,000 dead Americans. Much of that unpleasantness is virtually sealed off now by the mythology: the reluctance to step up on civil rights because of fear he’d lose Southern support for his foreign policy; the bloodlessness behind a domestic agenda that led to losses on education spending, tax reform, a proposed Department of Urban Affairs, migrant workers’ aid, public transportation.
In his inaugural, Kennedy barely nodded at domestic policy. And much of it is overshadowed by the sounder footing he seemed to find as he began the third year of his term. Having exhibited the cool rationality during the Cuban Missile Crisis that America thought it had voted for, he felt emboldened to give his “peace for all time” speech, assert himself on civil rights after lengthy goading from civil rights leaders, and push Congress for tax cuts it adopted after his death.
It is the Kennedy at the beginning and end of his presidency that endures in the proud national imagination, the reason he is still a touchstone for both left and right, and why so many were so eager to tie the current young president who took the oath two years ago to the young one who did 50 years ago. Like Obama -- and Clinton -- Kennedy was a figure of youth and progressiveness, taking over from an older and more conservative figure -- a point that, if not sufficiently underscored by his own “vigah” and fetching 31-year-old wife seated behind him, was driven home by the pronouncement that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
In a starkly less dramatic way than Obama, he was something of an ethnic pioneer, the first Roman Catholic elected president, 33 years after Al Smith had been the first Catholic to win a nomination, a demographic factor so pivotal that Kennedy advisers felt compelled to have him address the issue directly in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, not a venue known for its Catholic sympathies. He became the first president to win the White House without winning a majority of the Protestant vote. And, like Obama, he took office at a spasmodic time: The country busy warding off Soviet threats both real and imagined, enmeshed in far-away commitments with unclear exit strategies, amid massive social upheaval.
This was back in the day when Democrats still had a well-earned reputation for filching elections -- Chicago’s Mayor Daley reported that Illinois had gone for Kennedy before the votes were counted, revealing a margin of 8,800, give or take, which they had. (Say what you will about the paranoia of Richard Nixon, the loser to Kennedy in that 1960 election, he may have had legitimate reason to be concerned about some of those returns.) Yet Kennedy was a tremendously unifying figure, both in life and in the immediate aftermath of his death. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen called the inaugural speech “inspiring -- a very compact message of hope.”
After his death, the burnished image of Kennedy as American prince enabled his tax cuts, unshackled LBJ to pursue civil rights, and gave the country one of its enduring political demigods. At least in part because the country hasn’t been as expectant since. One measure of that is how naïve the words sound today, particularly in light of what was to follow. “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.”
No one still talks about Eisenhower’s first inaugural, or Nixon’s, or Clinton’s. Gauzed now in too many books of varying accuracy and refracted a thousand ways by the still-unfolding history set in motion that day, the Kennedy presidency began on a day and in a way about which modern messaging consultants can only fantasize: On a clear, brutally cold day, a president delivered in his own voice and without a filter a vision that would come to define him and his presidency, despite whatever triflings history may have attempted.
That day Frost described:
"...the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become."
For a nation that has obsessed over what it was and what it has become, JFK seems sadly relevant today. His artful description of a country still unsure of its place in the world, but mindful of the “long twilight struggle,” was a moment of national confidence that still resonates 50 years later. That is his gift, outright, to the generations that came later. Outright.
Video: Inaugural Addresses From Kennedy to Obama
CORRECTION: The original version of this report misspelled Ted Sorensen's name.