Review

Ask Not
The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America

by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
Henry Holt & Co.
272 pages
October 2004
$25.00

    Reviewed by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98)

    “THERE IS NO FRIGATE like a book to take us lands away,” Emily Dickinson tells us. And for me, there is no sea captain like an author with whom we’d eagerly sail anywhere. Thurston Clarke, who’s written ten books since he left Peace Corps (Tunisia 1968), is such an author.
         The first voyage I took with Clarke was back to West Africa in his book, The Last Caravan). I’d recently returned to the U.S. after living in Mali for nearly three years, and I was, frankly, homesick for the place I’d grown to love. Clarke’s book promised a magic carpet ride, and it didn’t disappoint. It is a moving and vivid account of the nomadic Tuareg tribe’s struggles due to drought and famine in the early ’70s, a tale of bravery, dignity, and survival.
         Then, hooked on Clarke’s sleek writing style and spurred by the question that nagged me throughout my Peace Corps service in Gabon (“Is it the equatorial heat that’s to blame for this all-pervasive paralysis?”), I journeyed with Clarke around the world’s waistline in his book Equator. We visited the continents in order, traveling east, going from South America to Africa and Asia and then back to South America; and all the while I was swept up in his astute observations and deliciously evocative prose. We entered Africa at Libreville, Gabon’s capital, where Clarke “felt like a small roast in a large microwave, cooked to the bone.” Aye, aye, Captain.
         Not long after, I set sail again with Clarke to a different place and time, a time just before I was born and a place I’ve never been: Budapest, Hungary, during Nazi occupation. Lost Hero is the achingly sorrowful true account of the young Swedish diplomat and humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg’s tragic disappearance into the Russian prison system, after having successfully saved 30,000 Hungarian Jews from certain annihilation.
         Now, with his newest book, Clarke has lifted me up and taken me back to another time in history, this time American history in my lifetime, when we were all so young, innocent, and hopeful. Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and The Speech That Changed America is a thoughtfully, gracefully, elegantly written book which every PCV and RPCV, especially, will want to read. More than a thousand books have been written about the Kennedy’s in the past forty years, but none of them has focused so thoroughly on the speech that, in Clarke’s words, “closed one era and launched the next.” It was on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy’s inauguration day, and not 1,038 days later, in November, 1963, when he was assassinated, that Americans “stepped through an invisible membrane in time,” Clarke contends.
         In his book A Thousand Days Arthur Schlesinger states that “the energies Kennedy released, the purposes he inspired, the goals he established would guide the land he loved for years to come.” Those years are ending, says Clarke: “Soon [JFK’s] words will have to stand on their own merits, unsupported by the memories of those who heard them. Now, before that happens, might be a good time to ask why the words of this supposedly cool and unemotional man had such an impact on so many lives, elicited such a passionate response, and launched such an intense and, in retrospect, heartbreaking era of public happiness.”
         Clarke begins and ends this book with Kennedy’s entire inaugural address, and in between tells how it came to be, especially within the ten days leading up to its delivery in front of the Capitol building on that historic, cold and snowy January afternoon. Far from an academic exercise in literary analysis, Clarke gives us a human drama played out on a grand stage.
         Kennedy began formal work on his inaugural address on January 10, 1961, on a flight to his family’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, where he would spend a week prior to the inauguration. On that flight, he dictated his first draft to his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. Throughout the ensuing week he edited and revised his speech, writing his changes in longhand on lined yellow legal pads, and working on the patio, in a first-floor study, or in the ground-floor bedroom he shared with Jackie.
         Kennedy’s goal was to go down in history, not only as a great President but also as one who inspired eloquence. As a young man he’d been a professional writer; he’d written a Pulitzer Prize-winning book; his literary standards were high. He could write quickly, too, Clarke says, because he knew who he was and what he wanted to say. He also had an excellent memory, and famous quotations were already part of his personal oratorical archive. The two men whom Kennedy quoted most were Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
         On the morning of January 17, three days before his inaugural address was to be delivered, Kennedy and his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, sat outside on the patio at the Palm Beach house, editing and polishing the latest revision. By this point, Clarke points out, Kennedy had apparently decided that “ask not” would be its great and immortal “master sentence,” its equivalent of Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and Lincoln’s “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”
         “Ask not” was more than the master sentence of Kennedy’s inaugural, according to Clarke. It was the master sentence of his life — what his thoughts, books, and speeches had been leading toward for a quarter century.
         When Kennedy returned to Washington on January 17, the speech he carried with him was in fact his philosophical autobiography.
         On the morning of January 20, 1961, Kennedy continued reading his inaugural aloud as he dressed and walked downstairs to breakfast. At 8:55 he left his house to attend mass at a nearby church. Clarke paints this vivid scene outside:

    Imagine a brilliant sun in a piercing blue sky, dazzling snowbanks, trees sheathed in ice, and a city of glistening marble. Imagine air so exhilarating it electrifies the senses and an ideal light for black-and-white television, with knife-sharp shadows and an art-film palette of shadings, the kind of day when you can see to the horizon. Imagine all this, and you have Washington, D.C., on the morning of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

         Near the end of the book, as JFK is delivering his speech to the rapt crowd in front of him and the 60 million Americans watching on TV, I could hear his voice come through the page, I could see him again alive and feel his energy:

    “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself . . ..”

         And tears blurred my eyes.
         Will we ever have another JFK?
         Perhaps. Perhaps he too will want to write his own, eloquent inaugural address. Perhaps he will aspire to a message that is as uplifting, life-changing, and majestic as John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s. If so, one hopes he reads Ask Not by Thurston Clarke beforehand, for both guidance and inspiration. And one can only hope that will be soon.

    Bonnie Lee Black, an honors graduate of Columbia University’s writing program, is the author of Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981). She teaches English at UNM-Taos and lives in Dixon, NM.