Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans –
born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit
the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world ... Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
— From John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inaugural address
I was 8 years old when, on Jan. 20, 1961, I huddled with my parents and sisters around our black-and-white console television to watch John Fitzgerald Kennedy deliver his most famous speech. I little understood then its careful crafting but took full note of its dramatic delivery. There in the center of the screen stood this handsome young man, boasting no greatcoat nor traditional top hat as he braved the bitter cold to proclaim proudly to a waiting world that the torch had, indeed, been passed to a new generation of Americans – of which he was both its leader and its fullest expression.
It is difficult today to explain to someone under the age of 50 what the world was like when JFK was president. It seems now that the Cold War, the Beatles and JFK defined the early years of the 1960s. If you were Irish Catholic then, you probably had a picture of the president right beside the picture of the pope. JFK and the ever radiant Jackie dazzled the nation as they dominated the news of the day. They were the Arthur and Guinevere of a new Camelot – a kingdom where righteousness and reason would right the wrongs of a world gone awry and astray. How prophetic Kennedy’s words now seem in hindsight: