Passing the Torch to a New Generation

President John F. Kennedy gives his inaugural address kn Washington, D.C., January 20, 1961.
AP Photo
This week marks a bittersweet anniversary: It was 50 years ago, on a cold and snow-covered day in Washington, D.C., that a relatively young and untried man stepped forward at noontime to take the Presidential Oath of Office. But for many of us of a certain age it seems like yesterday. Jeff Greenfield reports this morning's Cover Story:

He is of another time and place, buried on a hillside in Arlington, Va., for more than forty-seven years. Seven out of ten Americans were not even born when he took the oath of office 50 years ago.

But if you are old enough to remember, you can stand at the Capitol's east front, and the images flood back across half a century - the images in brilliant black and white that filled tens of millions of television screen.

"We observe today, not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom."

He had come to the presidency as the child of wealth and privilege, as a World War II hero who had almost lost his life, as the winner of the closest of elections, one whose validity was doubted by many.

Video: JFK's Inaugural Address 50 Years Later
Video: Watch Complete Inaugural Address

"Not just the youngest elected but also the first Catholic," notes historian Thurston Clarke. "And also elected by the slimmest vote, majority in the popular vote. And so that's another reason that he had to give a speech for the ages. A speech that would unite the country."

John F. Kennedy would be speaking as well to millions of his generation, who had come home from the war, tasted postwar prosperity, raised their baby boom children, worried under the shadow of a cold war and a nuclear threat, and watched as one of their own took the presidency.

"I remember thinking, I didn't know you could be a president of the United States and not have gray hair, you know?" said columnist, author, and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. She was a 10-year-old girl on New York's Long Island.

"These new people who came in, they had dark hair like sort of relatively young people, like parents, not like grandparents. I didn't know. I thought you had to have gray hair. I thought it was in the Constitution!"

And it was not just youth, but glamour, after 15 years of the Midwest, plain-spoken Harry Truman and then Dwight Eisenhower.

Jacqueline Kennedy was not just impossible young - a 31-year-old first lady - but strikingly attractive.

There was glamour of another sort: An inaugural gala hosted by Frank Sinatra, with many of the brightest stars of stage and screen.

"You had all of the celebrities in Washington," said Clarke. "You had a feeling that this was a gathering of the best and the brightest in the country."

On Inauguration Day, Kennedy took the oath of office bathed in brilliant winter light.

"It had snowed eight inches overnight," said Noonan. "Inauguration Day itself was very cold, but it was very bright. And the sun was out. And it was bouncing off all the snow. It was bouncing off those big white pillars."

There was Robert Frost, blinded by the sun, unable to read the poem he'd written, reciting another from memory. Jacqueline, dressed in beige, a conscious decision to set her apart from the other, older women draped in fur.

But what is most remembered are the words.

Longtime speechwriter and advisor Ted Sorensen told CBS News back in 1999 that Kennedy had one goal in mind: "He wanted this speech to speak out and try to address those skeptics, to prove that he was up to the task."

Sorensen - who died a few months ago - was often given credit for the Inaugural Address. Thurston Clarke disagrees.

"I think you would find that John Kennedy contributed most of the passages and the famous words that we remember: 'The torch has been passed to a new generation.' The "Ask not' line. 'Bear any burden.' All of those were Kennedy. He had a Sorenson draft in front of him. On January 10th he flew to Palm Beach, he looked at the draft, and he dictated his changes and his additions to the draft."

At the Kennedy Library in Boston, director Tom Putnam showed us the display that includes pages from the steno pad of Kennedy's secretary.

"Clearly, this is JFK dictating, as he often did, to Evelyn Lincoln," said Putnam. "Even in her shorthand, you can she's written out the words, 'Long twilight struggle.' 'Now the trumpet summons us again.' 'Tyranny, disease, war itself' - these are signature lines that we remember, and really, this is the genesis of them on that flight down to Palm

"We shall bear any burden, pay any price ..."

"People remember this as a kind of Cold War speech because of 'We'll pay any price, bear any burden,'" said Clarke. "But most of the rest of the speech was about peace and about negotiations and about the threat of nuclear war."

"Let us never negotiate out of fear ... but let us never fear to negotiate."

Most memorable, of course, is the line that defined his central message:

"And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

"When Kennedy said, 'Ask not,' people knew that this was a man who'd been decorated in World War II," said Clarke. "Who'd almost lost his life trying to save the surviving crew members of PT-109. So it wasn't Where does he get off saying 'Ask not'? He had the credentials to make this claim on people."

The instant acclaim for the speech - and the images of youth and glamour that surrounded the inauguration - set the state for coverage of the new president and his family and lasted for almost all of his thousand days in office - especially in the mass magazines, Life and Look, that were still read by millions.

But even now, with full knowledge of his reckless private life, why do Americans still rank John F. Kennedy the best of all post-war presidents?

"I think what we do - what John Kennedy did - is we compartmentalize things," said Clarke. "There was so much that was accomplished, that was on its way to being accomplished. We put this in one compartment. And then we have the other compartment, is this terribly reckless sexual life."

But there is, of course, another reason. Those other memories of another moment in Washington - the sudden end of his presidency left behind a sense of what could have been.

Is the legacy what happened or what we think could have happened had he not been killed?

"I think it's what we thought could have happened," said Clarke, "because in the last 100 days of his life he was suddenly beginning to have the courage to do the things that were going to make him a great president. And one was the civil rights bill and the other was the test ban treaty.

"But the beginning of his presidency - and what turned out to be the end of his presidency - were both times when the American people hoped that … this president was going to solve their problems, and was going to become what he hoped to be, which was a great president."

"This was a presidency interrupted," said Noonan. "It didn't have enough time to impose real meaning. It had enough time to impose a mood, and to impose an indelible memory."

For more info:
•  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
•  Text of Kennedy's Inaugural Address
•  "Ask Not" by Thurston Clarke (Penguin)
•  Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal
•  Patrick Kennedy's The Next Frontier
"From That Day Forth" (Vanity Fair)