In my childhood imagination, John F. Kennedy slotted somewhere below DiMaggio and above De Niro in a loose ranking of latter-day American deities. When I was just a toddler, the late president left a lasting impression on me, literally, after I pulled a terracotta reproduction of Robert Berks’ iconic sculpture—weighing considerably less, thankfully, than the 3,000-pound original—down from a sideboard and onto my head. On my bedroom wall hung two plaques, one a list of “coincidences”—many trivial, some factually incorrect—between the political careers and assassinations of Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. The other, also arguably incorrect, was a portrait of Kennedy embossed on black metal, staring out above his famous entreaty in all caps:
“ASK NOT WHAT YOUR COUNTRY
CAN DO FOR YOU …
ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO
FOR YOUR COUNTRY.”
It’s no secret that presidents often speak words they themselves did not write. When George Washington delivered the very first inaugural address, on Apr. 30, 1789, he was reading from a reworked draft composed by his friend and frequent ghostwriter James Madison. In 1861, with the country on the brink of civil war, Lincoln pitched his address to a restive South and planned to end on the crudely formed question, “Shall it be peace or sword?” That is, until his soon-to-be Secretary of State William Seward suggested a less combative, more poetic conjuring of “mystic chords” and “the
better angel guardian angel of the nation,” which Lincoln then uncrossed and altered to “the better angels of our nature.” Small matter, perhaps. We don’t require that our politicians be great writers, after all, only effective communicators, and they in turn sometimes benefit from a misattribution in perpetuity of someone else’s eloquence.
In Kennedy’s case, the gift of rhetoric was owed largely to his longtime counsel and legislative aide, Ted Sorensen, who later became his principal speechwriter after the two developed a simpatico understanding of oratory. In his 1965 biography Kennedy, Sorensen wrote:
As the years went on, and I came to know what he thought on each subject as well as how he wished to say it, our style and standard became increasingly one. When the volume of both his speaking and my duties increased in the years before 1960, we tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to find other wordsmiths who could write for him in the style to which he was accustomed. The style of those whom we tried may have been very good. It may have been superior. But it was not his.
Kennedy believed his inaugural address should “set a tone for the era about to begin,” an era in which he imagined foreign policy and global issues—not least the specter of nuclear annihilation—would be his chief concern. But while Sorensen may have been the only person who could reliably give voice to Kennedy’s ideas, the coming speech was too historic to entrust to merely one man. On Dec. 23, 1960, less than a month before Kennedy would stand on the East Portico of the Capitol to take the oath of office, Sorensen sent a block telegram to 10 men, soliciting “specific themes” and “language to articulate these themes whether it takes one page or ten pages.”
Although Sorensen was without question the chief architect of Kennedy’s inaugural, the final draft contained contributions or borrowings from, among others, the Old Testament, the New Testament, Lincoln, Kennedy rival and two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and, we believe, Kennedy himself.
But an unequivocal puzzling out of exactly who wrote what is, with some exceptions, impossible. Late in his life, Sorensen, who died in 2010, admitted to destroying his own hand-written first draft of the speech at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, who was deeply protective of her husband’s legacy. When pressed further, Sorensen was famously coy. If asked whether he wrote the speech’s most enduring line, for example, he would answer simply, “Ask not.” During an interview with Richard Tofel, author of Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Sorensen seemed to suggest that preservation of the myth was more essential than any single truth about the man:
I recognize that I have some obligation to history, but all these years I have tried to make clear that President Kennedy was the principal author of all his speeches and articles. If I say otherwise, that diminishes him, and I don’t want to diminish him.
If Jacqueline Kennedy and Ted Sorensen were willing to tear up what may have been the only categorical proof of Sorensen’s primary authorship, President Kennedy—in an incident that can only be described as out-and-out deception—was willing to lie. On Jan. 16 and 17, 1961, at the Kennedy vacation compound in Palm Beach, Fla., Sorensen and JFK polished a near-final draft of the inaugural address and even typed it up on carbon paper. Later on the 17th, the two flew back to Washington aboard Kennedy’s private plane, the Caroline, with Time correspondent Hugh Sidey, whose reporting on the president veered between the credulous and the hagiographic.
At some point during the flight, Kennedy began scribbling on a yellow legal pad in front of Sidey, as if working out just then his thoughts about the speech. What Kennedy in fact wrote was some of the precise language that had already been committed to typescript. During an interview with historian Thurston Clarke, author of Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America, Sidey recalled thinking, “My God! It’s three days before the inauguration, and he hasn’t progressed beyond a first draft?”
Not only had Kennedy progressed well beyond that, but he and Sorensen had nailed down what we know to be the penultimate version. Even worse, Kennedy later copied out by hand six or seven more pages—directly, one assumes, from the typewritten copy—and dated it “Jan 17, 1961.” After JFK’s assassination, the pages were displayed in what would become his presidential library and identified as an early draft.
There are a total of 51 sentences in the only text of the inaugural that now matters to the world, the speech as read on Jan. 20, 1961, though it can’t be said, without at least some conjecture, that Kennedy was the principal author of any one of them. I asked Tofel, who is now president of ProPublica, what it means that Kennedy may have been a mere messenger of what many Americans consider to be one of the most pivotal speeches of the 20th century, second only to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”:
Kennedy lives on in our history not because of, frankly, enormous accomplishment—he died, at the most generous, before he could accomplish a great deal—but because of his ability to articulate, I think, our most profound values and highest aspirations much better than anyone has before or since. And that is his. It is not Sorensen’s. It is not Galbraith’s. It is not Schlesinger’s. We are talking about him at great length here 50 years after his death, and I believe we are doing that because of the power of words. And in that sense they are his words.
Should Sorensen’s original draft or other lost fragments ever materialize, whatever they might say is surely no match for the shrine that history has erected and the symbolism that hung on the walls of my childhood bedroom. And in that sense, those words belong to me.