JFK's 'Ask Not' Speech, 50 Years Later

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Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy used his inaugural address to urge Americans to get on with things and just change the world already. If popular culture is anything to go by, he made his point and cemented his legacy: to think "JFK" is to think "ask not what your country can do for you" (along with gimmes like jelly doughnut jokes). However, reaction to the the golden anniversary of Kennedy's 1961 speech is not all positive. While some celebrate the enduring impact of the dramatic address, others are less enthusiastic about the Kennedy legacy. Is the Camelot gleam wearing off?

  • To Be Sure, JFK Still Has His Fans  Time's Joe Klein recalled the 1961 speech that fueled a generation with cinematic detail:
I was 14 years old and watched it on television (black and white, naturally). It was a freezing day, blindingly white snow--Robert Frost couldn't read his poem because of the glare. There were puffs of vapor with every exhale, as John F. Kennedy gave me, and my generation, our marching orders. The immediate burst of energy, of idealism, of high style, culture and intellectuality--the celebration of intellectuality as opposed to today's celebration of ignorance--was intoxicating. I became, as did so many others, a Kennedy obsessive.
  • How Kennedy's Speech Changed People  NPR's Nathan Rott also delivers positive reminiscences of 1961. He highlights personal stories like those of Donna Shalala who, decades before becoming Bill Clinton's secretary of Health and Human Services in the 90s pulled up stakes and headed to southern Iran.
"I could go to graduate school, I could go to law school," she says. "Before I heard the speech I was thinking of being a journalist, a war correspondent as a matter of fact." But Kennedy's speech changed all that.

She remembers feeling like Kennedy wasn't addressing the nation, he was addressing her. And "he was talking about public service," she says.

She'd never considered public service until that day, until his words hit her "like a splash of water," as she puts it.
  • But Not Everyone’s Drinking the Kool-Aid  Salon’s Robert Dallek gets right to the point and says Kennedy’s legacy is overblown and unwarranted:
The great mystery is why Kennedy, who served for only a thousand days and failed to persuade the Congress to pass any of his major domestic initiatives on taxes, civil rights, health insurance for seniors, and aid to education, enjoys such extraordinary public regard. True, his brilliant handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis resolved the greatest Soviet-American confrontation threatening a nuclear disaster in the 45-year history of the Cold War. Moreover, his negotiation of a nuclear test ban in the atmosphere was a giant step forward in limiting the arms race. But his failed assault on Fidel Castro’s Cuban government at the Bay of Pigs and his expansion of the U.S. military’s advisory role in Vietnam and the toppling of the Ngo Dinh Diem government, which many see as the preludes to Johnson’s war, add to the puzzle about Kennedy’s high standing.
  • Legacy a Burden, Not a Beacon  National Review's Conrad Black offers a near blow-by-blow accounting of Eisenhower’s triumphs before he even gets to the problems of Kennedy's legacy:
On that confident noon 50 years ago, he spoke of being prepared “to bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” to advance the cause of freedom. It was the abandonment of Eisenhower’s relatively low-cost “more bang for the buck” massive-retaliation approach — “brinkmanship,” as it had been called. We would now signal a preparedness to be mouse-trapped into sundry overseas engagements, without necessarily having clear exit strategies. Kennedy rushed into the harebrained Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, which General Eisenhower had avoided for reasons of both military unfeasibility and international law. . . . Unfortunately, the myth-making about the Cuban Missile Crisis enabled the Kennedy entourage to believe that they had developed a new and infallible method of Harvard-based, critical-path crisis management.

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