Bookmarks Issue: 

The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America

A-AskNotWhen John F. Kennedy stepped to the podium on January 20, 1961, expectations were high, though the large anti-Kennedy faction in the crowd might have augmented the chill in the air. Clarke chips through history’s veneer to uncover the sources of this famous inauguration address. "Kennedy was more than the ‘principal architect’ of his inaugural address;" writes Clarke, "he was its stonecutter and mason, too." From the multiple drafts of the speech to a play-by-play account of inauguration day, Ask Not performs a historical autopsy on the people and ideas that combined in Kennedy’s historic oration, which lent an air of great change to the American people.
Holt. 254 pages. $25. ISBN: 0805072136

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What the book shows are two highly gifted men [Kennedy and speechwriter Ted Sorenson] who, alone among all the various academics and hacks involved in the process, knew what the standard was and together achieved a moment of greatness." Matthew Scully

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Dozens of biographers have singled out Kennedy’s assistant Ted Sorenson as the chief author of the inaugural address, a task he supposedly accomplished in collaboration with various advisers. Using previously unavailable documentation, Clarke debunks this myth." Edward J. Renehan, Jr.

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Clarke makes as much of it as he can, but to make a whole book out of a single speech a certain amount of padding is necessary. … Still, it has the happy effect of bringing quite fully to life that brief, hopeful hour in our nation’s history." Jonathan Yardley

New Yorker 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Clarke is not quite as persuasive as he wants to be, but he is as persuasive as he needs to be." Louis Menand

Critical Summary

Clarke has two purposes in Ask Not: to examine the Kennedy Inauguration in precise detail and to determine J.F.K.’s role in writing the speech. Clarke uses newly discovered primary source material to make his case for the ex-President’s authorship over speechwriter Ted Sorenson. Critics disagree about the efficacy of his argument, but in the end, it veers in his favor. Does this event deserve the intense scrutiny of an entire book? The Washington Post calls Ask Not padded (how much, really, do you want to read about Jackie’s dresses?); The San Francisco Chronicle relishes the personalities and small details that set the stage for Camelot.

Supplemental Reading

Lincoln at Gettysburg The Words That Remade America | Garry Willis (1992): Award Star Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. A former professor of Greek, Willis argues that Lincoln’s reliance on the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution was fundamental to moving the country forward.