Peace Corps Writers
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Ask Not

Read the review of Ask Not written by Bonnie Lee Black

An interview by John Coyne
Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968) has written ten widely acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, including three New York Times notable books. His Pearl Harbor Ghosts was the basis of a CBSPrinter friendly version documentary, and his bestselling Lost Hero, a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, was made into an award-winning NBC miniseries. His articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. He is the recipient of a Guggehheim Fellowship and other awards and lives with his wife and three daughters in upstate New York. And for the sake of full disclosure, I should add that Thurston is a good friend, and my wife published one of his books when she was a book editor. My wife is also the godmother of his youngest daughter.
     That said, I want to add that Thurston is a helluva writer and his new book — Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America — is an important book that tells an amazing story. As the book jacket writes: “Thurston Clarke’s portrait of JFK during what intimates call his happiest days reveals this ultimate politician at his most dazzlingly charismatic and cunningly pragmatic. For everyone who seeks to understand an era and the endless fascination with all things Kennedy, the answer can be found in Ask Not.”
     So, I asked . . .
Thurston, why did you select this speech as a focus of a book?
Every great speech needs a great event, and the 1961 inauguration was just that: one of the great American political events of the century. The fact that there was this intersection between one of the greatest inaugural speeches in American history AND one of the greatest inaugurations convinced me that there would be enough material for a book.
Why is it important to establish that Kennedy was the real author of many of the most memorable and poetic passages of his inaugural address?
The issue of whether Kennedy composed his own inaugural, or delivered speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s beautiful words, is not some arcane historical footnote. The speech is generally acknowledged to have been the greatest oration of any twentieth-century American politician. More than the countless books about JFK, it is his inaugural that explains the Kennedy phenomenon to the heart as well as the mind, reaching across the chasm of years to connect the present with the beginning hour of his presidency. To deny him full credit for it not only diminishes his legacy and weakens his claim on the hearts and minds of future generations; it also distances him, and us, from a speech that is a distillation of his experiences, philosophy, and character.
How do we know that Kennedy actually wrote the speech?
Three days before delivering it, Kennedy wrote out in longhand many of the passages he had dictated to his personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln the week before. The reason for this was to leave a record in his own handwriting that would persuade skeptical journalists and future historians that he was the true and only author of these immortal lines. It was a charade, of course, but an honorable one designed to reinforce the truth: that Kennedy was the true author of, for example:

“The torch has been passed to a new generation . . .”

“We shall pay any price, bear any burden . . .”

“Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”

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