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Celebrating ‘Ask Not,’ JFK 50 Years Later

Richard Avedon/Courtesy John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Fifty years ago, an idealistic young Massachusetts politician spoke to the nation for just under 14 minutes. 

His words almost instantly became iconic.

At his Jan. 20, 1961, inauguration, President John F. Kennedy delivered the speech that began his legacy, calling on Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Historian Thurston Clarke said JFK’s address made a tremendous impact on Americans of all political persuasions, launching a brief era of optimism and hope.

“Unlike the Gettysburg Address, this was hailed as a great speech within hours and was praised by the left and right,” said Clarke, who wrote “Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America.” 

“It was an instant hit.”

“It wasn’t just his eloquence, it was the moment as well,” Clarke added. “For a great speech, you need a man who can deliver it. ... And you have to have a great moment too. People wanted to be challenged.”

Across the nation and in D.C., that legacy will be remembered this year with a variety of events, exhibitions and celebrations honoring the anniversary of JFK’s inaugural address.

The Kennedy Center is hosting three weeks of events commemorating JFK’s love of the arts. “The Presidency of John F. Kennedy: A 50th Anniversary Celebration” kicks off with a concert Thursday hosted by Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols. The event features a variety of performances and appearances from Yo-Yo Ma, the American Ballet Theatre and Julie Andrews, among others. 

The night’s entertainment also includes the world premiere of Peter Lieberson’s “Remembering JFK: An American Elegy,” a piece specially commissioned by the center and performed by the National Symphony Orchestra. The work sets Kennedy’s speeches to music and will be narrated by actors Morgan Freeman on Thursday and Richard Dreyfuss for the NSO’s three additional concerts Saturday through Monday.

“We wanted to mark the occasion with a new piece of music because the Kennedys, when they were inviting people to the White House, it wasn’t always for traditional pieces,” Kennedy Center press director John Dow said. “They were always pushing ahead.”

The Kennedy Center will debut several other performances honoring Kennedy’s arts legacy. The American Ballet Theatre’s company premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Bright Stream” hits the stage Friday through Monday, and the center’s newly commissioned play, “American Scrapbook: A Celebration of Verse” by Jason Williamson, runs from Jan. 29 to Feb. 6.

The Capitol might host a celebration as well — a resolution by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to authorize the use of the Rotunda for a ceremony honoring the anniversary was referred to the House Administration Committee on Jan. 6. 

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