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Kennedy’s Inaugural Call To Action

In our series, “November 1963,” we listen back to America’s 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. On Jan. 20, 1961, having won the election by a 17 percent margin, the narrowest since 1916, Kennedy delivered his inaugural address 

BOSTON — Under a blazing January sky, the president stood in another glare. The skeptical gaze of the nearly 50 percent of the electorate who had not voted for him. He began with a clarion call intended to appeal to all Americans.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address, Jan. 20, 1961. (AP)

U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address, Jan. 20, 1961. (AP)

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.”

Kennedy’s inaugural address was part Cold War speech, part domestic agenda.

“Remembering, on both sides, that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.

“Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms — and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

“Let both sides seeks to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

By all accounts, Kennedy galvanized his audience, but he tempered their expectations, as well.

“All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Kennedy reportedly told his speech writer, Ted Sorensen, that he wanted this inaugural speech to be as enduring as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. As he drew to a close, he made a spontaneous change to the text, assuring that would be case.

“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

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