Peace Corps Writers
Talking with thurston Clarke (page 2)
 Talking with
Thurston Clarke
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page 2
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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 Kennedy’s 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 Kennedy’s own life and character.
Why does the Kennedy inaugural still touch the hearts and minds of Americans?
   Kennedy’s 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 JFK’s inauguration and assassination haunt one another?
   The inauguration magnifies the tragedy of Kennedy’s 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 Kennedy’s 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 husband’s 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.
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