352: Ask Not by Thurston Clarke

by Gerard

352.23860973: Clarke, Thurston. Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America. New York: Henry Holt, 2004. 216 pp. ISBN 0-8050-7213-6.

Dewey Construction:

  • 300: Social Science
  • 350: Public Administration
  • 352: General considerations of public administration
  • +2386: Inaugural addresses
  • +0973: United States (historical treatment)

On January 20, 1961, households across the US tuned in to what they thought would be yet another lackluster presidential inaugural address. What they heard would change them. At just under 14 minutes, it was the fourth shortest such address in history. But packed into the dense optimism was a sense of history. It charged the nation to be actively responsible for its future, to cull forth a sense of duty. And all this came from a man who just forty-three years old, the youngest man ever elected president—John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Thurston Clarke’s Ask Not charts the genesis of Kennedy’s inaugural address in a way that no one work before has ever done. Most history books throw in a small footnote saying that Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s speechwriter, actually penned the words, but none of them offer evidence to support this “fact.” Clarke’s investigation into the Kennedy papers shows that Kennedy not only realized and wrote the speech itself, but also understood its probable affect on both the population and his place in history.

The book covers in detail the ten days preceding Inauguration Day 1961 to give a sense of how the president-elect negotiated the tricky transition period and how he crafted his public orations. The input from his speechwriters and policy advisors was sound, but ultimately Kennedy composed the speech himself and went to great lengths to ensure proof of the same.

At times Clarke’s book reads more like a cross between a linguistics paper and a boring analysis done by a forensic lexicographer, but overall the story is a good one to tell. For those who doubted that Kennedy even wrote Profiles in Courage, this should put those rumors to rest. A short but intriguing tale.