President Obama tonight hailed John F. Kennedy as a transcendent and visionary leader and an advocate of "idealism without illusion" whose truncated term in office set the stage for significant advances in nuclear disarmament, civil rights, and technology.
Kennedy "captured that American spirit that not only put a man on the moon, but saved a continent from tyranny and overcame a Great Depression; that forged, from 13 colonies, the last best hope on Earth," Obama said at a tribute marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's inauguration.
"Because of his vision, I can stand here tonight as president of the United States," Obama said.
The president, congressional leaders and political luminaries joined event hosts Diane Sawyer, of ABC News, and producer Mike Nichols at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the capital's gleaming monument to the 35th president.
Obama noted that Kennedy did not live an easy life, losing two siblings, nearly getting killed during the Second World War, and suffering daily from an assortment of serious medical conditions.
"There is surely a possibility, under such circumstances, that a person will retreat from the world; that a person, particularly one born to wealth, will seek a life of luxury and ease; that a person, confronted by the coldness of chance, will become bitter or cynical or small. It has happened to others," Obama said. "But that is not the life that John F. Kennedy chose."
"Kennedy chose a life in the arena, full of confidence that our country could surmount any obstacle, as he'd seen it do himself. He chose a life of leadership, fired not by naïve optimism, but committed realism; 'idealism,' as his wife Jackie put it, 'without illusions.' And if we can hold onto that spirit today, I know that our generation will answer its call as ably as earlier ones did before us," Obama said.
The president's brief remarks included both a humorous aside -- he noted that he couldn't imagine what it must have been like to come into office in "such turbulent times" -- and a solemn tribute to Kennedy's brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, who died this week.
Obama did not stay for the evening's entertainment, which included performances by Herbie Hancock and Yo-Yo Ma, a ballet presentation, and remarks by Lorne Michaels, the television producer.
Kennedy's speech, on a snowy Friday in 1961, is studied in rhetoric classes as the quintessential example of classic structure. Its most famous sentence is the well-known chiasmus "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
That sentiment has served as a peroration for Democratic and Republican presidents alike, and is quite possibly the most repeated presidential quotation in modern history.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, teared up at a congressional event today when he noted that this session of Congress is the first since Kennedy's inauguration without a Kennedy brother as a member.