ASK NOT by Thurston Clarke


The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America
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Comprehensive account of the day a young president took the oath of office and gave one of the great speeches of the 20th century.

Clarke (Searching for Crusoe, 2001, etc.) details the activities of president-elect John F. Kennedy for the 11 days that culminated with his delivery of an electrifying address calculated to vie with Lincoln’s and FDR’s best. He unravels the skein of authorship, including the contributions of Ted Sorensen and others, relating just how the youthful politician became the true owner of the speech’s grace and eloquence and how JFK delivered the oration of his life that cold, sunny day more than four decades ago. The cool central figure, fully aware of power of the High Court of History, spent time phoning and tanning at the family ménage at Palm Beach, arranging liaisons and ignoring the imprecations of a dithering mother and a domineering father. Jack reenacted composing a “draft” of his speech in the presence of a reporter or two as Evelyn Lincoln typed consecutive versions. Jackie fretted about the dowdy “Maison Blanche” and devised a killer initial First Lady outfit with Oleg Cassini. Volatile Sinatra, impresario of the inaugural gala, enlisted a “bouillabaisse of hoofers, opera stars, vaudeville comedians, Broadway belters, and classical actors.” Pals from the days of PT 109 appeared. Bigwigs of the generation passing into history succumbed to rampant political schadenfreude. Clarke is adept at seeing the webs of internecine feuds and animosities so hot in the inaugural VIP seats that spontaneous combustion didn’t seem impossible. He’s also an apt student of the what-he-had-for-breakfast-that-day school of popular history, and as his vivid narrative unfolds in that tradition, we can hear the words of the speech rise from the page.

An artful addition to Kennedyana, complete with detailed literary forensics that will inevitably invite a comparison to the present state of political rhetoric and contemplation of what we have lost.

Pub Date: Oct. 8th, 2004
ISBN: 0-8050-7213-6
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2004


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