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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.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an anniversary celebration without a chance to explore JFK’s life and term in office. History buffs can catch a glimpse of Kennedy’s first executive order at the National Archives until Jan. 31. In his first official action in office, Kennedy called on the secretary of Agriculture to increase the allotments and variety of food for poor families.
“He and Mrs. Kennedy had campaigned in West Virginia during the 1960 primary, and it was a really important victory for him,” National Archives curator Bruce Bustard said. “They both saw it was one of America’s poorest states, and they were shocked by the poverty there. When you think of all the different challenges a new president faces, I thought it was interesting he decided to take on the issue of hunger in America first.”
For a look at the brief moment in time between JFK’s victory and his inauguration, check out the National Museum of American History exhibition of nine photographs of JFK and his family from Jan. 3, 1960. The images, taken by Richard Avedon for Harper’s Bazaar, are from the only photo session between the election and inauguration, and they are on view for the first time since their donation in 1966.
Visitors can catch the photos in “The Kennedys 50 Years Ago” until Feb. 28.
There’s even a way to join in on the celebration without leaving home: the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum will mark the anniversary by unveiling its digitized archive of Kennedy’s official and personal records. Director Tom Putnam said the archive, which is available at jfklibrary.org, allows anyone the chance to access records. “We’ve taken entire collections and had interns scan them painstakingly page by page,” he said. “You can go online and replicate the experience of the research room.”
Unveiling the archives during the anniversary is a “happy coincidence,” Putnam said. It’s an ongoing project that started four years ago, and as it unfolded staffers decided to coordinate its launch with the inauguration. The library has also launched a “JFK 50 Years On Demand” TV channel in connection with Comcast, offering speeches, newsreels and films to customers for free through Feb. 25.
“This would be the moment when the eyes of the world will be back on that speech given 50 years ago,” Putnam noted.
Fifty years on, JFK’s inaugural address retains its power to inspire and challenge Americans. “It hasn’t been equaled since then, not for lack of trying,” Clarke said.
And for the many organizations seeking to remember the legacy of that day, it’s a reminder of JFK’s call to arms: “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.”