Talking with . . .

Thurston Clarke
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    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 CBS 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 . . .”

    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.

    Do you think this was Kennedy’s greatest speech, or was it the speech in Berlin in 1963 when he ended by saying, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.”?
    The inaugural was his greatest speech. It is the one that changed lives, and it will be remembered long after anyone heard it has died.

    In your opinion what was Kennedy’s lasting contribution to America?
    The Peace Corps was his most concrete and lasting contribution.

    Some practical questions. How long did the book take to write?
    The writing and research took about two years. I compartmentalized the research as much as possible, dividing it into topics and periods of time such as the transition, the ten days before the inauguration, and inauguration day. After I had more or less finished the research on one topic of period I wrote a rough draft, while continuing research into other areas.

    Thurston, how do you write and who edits your work?
    I work on a computer and on long legal pads, depending on what kind of material I’m writing. Some of the passages and chapters may go through as many as a dozen drafts, others through five or six. It depends on how long it takes to get it right. I write about five/six hours a day, more when I’m approaching a deadline, less when I’ve just finished something. I have a studio and my wife edits my drafts.

    What’s next for you?
    I am currently conducting research for A Prayer For Our Country, a narrative account of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the presidency.

    Where does the title come from?
    The title comes from the impromptu speech that Robert Kennedy made to a largely black audience in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, just hours after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. In that speech Kennedy said, “So I shall ask you tonight to return home — to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”

    Why this topic for a book?
    Because in his primary campaign for the presidency Robert Kennedy gives us a model of politics at its most honest, moral, and passionate, a model that we could do well to study today.

    Thanks, Thurston, and good luck with Ask Not and your next book.
    Thanks, John.