EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


January 18, 2009

Inaugural moments seemed pedestrian at the time

WASHINGTON — Inaugurations that loom large in history are seen differently at the time.

Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural speech was panned in some quarters as "a sea of twaddle." Newspaper front pages were largely silent on Franklin Roosevelt's call to fear nothing but fear itself. "Ask not" was reflected — not — in leading accounts of John F. Kennedy's big speech.

It's possible Americans will again miss the lasting point when Barack Obama becomes president Tuesday. The present is blind to what the future can see.

Speechwriters, for one group, can't see the long view. The harder they try to come up with the phrase that lasts forever, the more they are apt to fail, said Theodore C. Sorensen, a Kennedy speechwriter who, perhaps out of modesty, claimed no authorship of famous lines from Jan. 20, 1961.

Journalists? It's not for nothing their craft is called the first draft of history.

In 1933, accounts of the day focused on the economic nitty gritty of Roosevelt's Depression-era address, not his rousing chin-up to the nation.

Kennedy's speech was perceived as a tough-talking Cold War treatise more than as a call to service, generational change and idealism.

"'Never negotiate out of fear but let us never fear to negotiate' and 'pay any price, bear any burden' are far more important ideas in the Kennedy inaugural address than 'Ask not,'" said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Pay any price," in particular, may have forecast not only Kennedy's steely resolve against the Soviets but U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Yet the future most remembers Kennedy's finger-jabbing demand: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

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