Why was ask not what your country can do for you . . . immediately recognized as the great grace note of the inaugural address?
Ask not . . . was a distillation of Kennedys philosophy and experience the chrysalis of his campaign speeches, and the logical and emotional climax of his inaugural address. It had great emotional power because Kennedy had himself asked not and proven his courage and patriotism while commanding a PT boat during the Pacific War. In short, this sentence seemed so powerful and true because it was so firmly grounded in Kennedys own life and character.
Why does the Kennedy inaugural still touch the hearts and minds of Americans?
Kennedys belief in a higher purpose, and his conviction that every individual could contribute to achieving it by using his or her talents to assure a more fruitful life for all mankind, resonated powerfully with the American people, then and now. It spoke to the need to live for something grander and nobler than physical comfort and material luxury. It appealed to the deeply religious strain in the American character, since a higher purpose implies the existence of a Higher Power. It affirmed the worth of every life by promising that the energy, faith, and devotion each individual brought to the task of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger could ignite a fire whose glow could truly light the world.
How do JFKs inauguration and assassination haunt one another?
The inauguration magnifies the tragedy of Kennedys death, while his death and funeral lend an added poignancy to the words of his inaugural.
Television footage of Kennedy and Eisenhower traveling by motorcade from the White House to the Capitol on inauguration day conjures up images of the motorcade in Dallas. We see him waiting in the Capitol, nervously rocking on his heels and made impatient by a twenty-minute delay, then lying in the rotunda almost three years later, impatient no longer. The next time many of the people seated in VIP sections on inauguration day would gather in Washington again would be at Kennedys funeral. The next time most Americans would hear the words of his inaugural address would be at his funeral, when Archbishop Hannan delivered passages from it as a eulogy, reciting, in a hollow, grief-stricken voice, And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you . . .
Jackie Kennedy called her husbands inaugural address beautiful and soaring, and predicted history would rank it with Pericles Funeral Oration and the Gettysburg Address. In the hours following his death, she would translate its eloquent sentences into an eloquent funeral, and so the torch that Kennedy had claimed for a new generation became the eternal flame at his grave, and the trumpet summoning Americans to a long twilight struggle against tyranny, poverty, disease, and war became the trumpet playing taps over his grave. In fact, the spare and classical language of the Kennedy inaugural was so easily translated into the spare and classical Kennedy funeral that you could say that when he dictated it to Evelyn Lincoln on January 10, he was also dictating his funeral.
Of all the interesting facts that you tracked down, what surprised you the most in your research?
The extent of Adlai Stevenson's contributions to the inaugural; the original material dictated by Kennedy ten days before the inauguration; the fact that Kennedy made more than thirty changes to the speech as he was delivering it.
Do you think this was Kennedys greatest speech, or was it the speech in Berlin in 1963 when he ended by saying, All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.?
The inaugural was his greatest speech. It is the one that changed lives, and it will be remembered long after anyone heard it has died.
In your opinion what was Kennedys lasting contribution to America?
The Peace Corps was his most concrete and lasting contribution.
Some practical questions. How long did the book take to write?
The writing and research took about two years. I compartmentalized the research as much as possible, dividing it into topics and periods of time such as the transition, the ten days before the inauguration, and inauguration day. After I had more or less finished the research on one topic of period I wrote a rough draft, while continuing research into other areas.
Thurston, how do you write and who edits your work?
I work on a computer and on long legal pads, depending on what kind of material Im writing. Some of the passages and chapters may go through as many as a dozen drafts, others through five or six. It depends on how long it takes to get it right. I write about five/six hours a day, more when Im approaching a deadline, less when Ive just finished something. I have a studio and my wife edits my drafts.
Whats next for you?
I am currently conducting research for A Prayer For Our Country, a narrative account of Robert Kennedys 1968 campaign for the presidency.
Where does the title come from?
The title comes from the impromptu speech that Robert Kennedy made to a largely black audience in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, just hours after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. In that speech Kennedy said, So I shall ask you tonight to return home to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, thats true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
Why this topic for a book?
Because in his primary campaign for the presidency Robert Kennedy gives us a model of politics at its most honest, moral, and passionate, a model that we could do well to study today.
Thanks, Thurston, and good luck with Ask Not and your next book.