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.