Jan. 18, 2009
January 20, 1961
"Washington is a city of northern charm and southern efficiency," said John F. Kennedy about the nation's capital. The city's southern efficiency had never been so much needed as the night before the charming northerner took the oath as President. The city had been blanketed with eight inches of snow the night before the Inauguration. The army, city employees and 1,700 Boy Scout volunteers moved stranded cars, shoveled paths, and swept snow off the Inaugural stands.
At noon on that frigid Friday, the temperatures stood at just twenty-two degrees. The brilliant mid-winter sun glinted off the snow, almost blinding the frail poet Robert Frost as he tried to read his tribute to America. Boston's Cardinal Cushing offered a lengthy invocation--the first time a Roman Catholic prelate could pray for a new President of his own faith. During the Cardinal's prayer, the lectern actually caught fire.
When John F. Kennedy rose to take the oath from Chief Justice Earl Warren, the white-haired jurist was administering the historic words to the youngest man ever elected the nation's Chief Executive. Watching the vigorous Kennedy that day, hatless, coatless in the cold, his forefinger jabbing the air as clouds of breath steamed forward, few would dream that Warren would write the multi-volume report that tried to quell public doubts about Kennedy's death by assassination in less than three years time.
This day, though, was all ruffles and flourishes. Kennedy the liberal Democrat was determined to show that he could be as strong in standing up to communist tyranny as the old warrior, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been. To a listening world, he vowed: "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Summoning Americans to a long twilight struggle, he challenged his people: "My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."
Americans were stirred and thrilled by his words. They nodded in agreement when he said: "The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God." No one complained about Kennedy's violating the separation of church and state. No one called him divisive. All Americans believed his words then. Have we stopped believing them?