Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America

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A close-up on one of American history's most magical events, JFK's inaugural week, and the creation of the speech that inspired a generation and brought hope to a nation

"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." On the January morning when John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency and stood to speak those words, America was divided, its citizens torn by fears of war. Kennedy's speech-called the finest since Lincoln at Gettysburg and the most memorable of any twentieth-century...

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Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America

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Overview


A close-up on one of American history's most magical events, JFK's inaugural week, and the creation of the speech that inspired a generation and brought hope to a nation

"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." On the January morning when John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency and stood to speak those words, America was divided, its citizens torn by fears of war. Kennedy's speech-called the finest since Lincoln at Gettysburg and the most memorable of any twentieth-century American politician-did more than reassure: it changed lives, marking the start of a brief, optimistic era of struggle against "tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."

Ask Not is a beautifully detailed account of the week leading up to the inaugural which stands as one of the most moving spectacles in the history of American politics. At the heart of the narrative is Kennedy's quest to create a speech that would distill American dreams and empower a new generation. Thurston Clarke's portrait of JFK during what intimates called his happiest days is balanced, revealing the President at his most dazzlingly charismatic-and cunningly pragmatic. As the snow covers Washington in a blanket of white, as statesmen and celebrities arrive for candlelit festivities, the perfectionist Kennedy pushes himself to the limit, to find the words that would capture what he most truly believed and which would far outlast his own life. For everyone who seeks to understand the fascination with all things Kennedy, the answer can be found in Ask Not.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." For aging baby boomers, even the first two words of the quotation bring the occasion to mind; the windy, chilly January 1961 afternoon when John F. Kennedy delivered his historic inaugural address. Its words are chiseled into granite tablets at Arlington National Cemetery, below the president's grave. Author Thurston Clarke believes that it is time that we retrieve this famous speech from legend to reexamine it in the warm light of history. Drawing on shorthand notes that Kennedy dictated and successive drafts of the speech, he shows how the president-elect shaped the oration in ways previously unknown. For any JFK fan, Ask Not is an absorbing revisionist history.
Publishers Weekly
Ever since the success of Garry Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg, various authors have tried, with varying degrees of success, to create similar books focusing on the personalities, events and politics surrounding great rhetorical moments. One of the more valuable such efforts is this new study of JFK's inauguration and his memorable "Ask not what your country can do for you" speech. Clarke (Pearl Harbor Ghosts; Lost Hero) offers an excellent reconstruction of the details of that frigid, snow-encrusted day in January 1961-and the many busy days before, when Kennedy and such advisers as Ted Sorenson and John Kenneth Galbraith joined words that still resonate in our national memory. Contesting accepted wisdom that gives Sorenson the bulk of the credit for the address, Clarke-through assiduous sleuthing-documents Kennedy's primary authorship of the speech considered by many to be his greatest public utterance. One quibble: for all the value of tracking numerous drafts of the inaugural remarks back to JFK's original dictation, handwritten draft and on-the-spot changes from the podium, following all these minuscule revisions sometimes makes for a blizzard of detail only the most devoted Kennedy fan will want to negotiate. Nevertheless, Clarke clearly breaks new ground, creating a valuable book worth making room for on the crowded Kennedy shelf. Agent, Kathy Robbins. (Oct. 8) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
With its famous call to service, Kennedy's January 20, 1961, inaugural address more likely moved the nation, concludes the author, than affected the change claimed by the book's title. Clarke (California Fault: Searching for the Spirit of the State Along the San Andreas) presents a spirited narrative of how Kennedy wrote the speech during the ten days before the inauguration. After detailed comparison of the address's multiple drafts, he maintains that the speech was largely Kennedy's, although he had some help from speechwriter Theodore Sorenson and others. Kennedy agonized over every word and revised right up to inauguration day: his goal was to make the speech as memorable as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and to gain the trust of the many voters (49.6 percent) who had supported Richard Nixon. Entertaining stories capture the festive Washington atmosphere, and the author skillfully conveys the country's optimistic mood. This fine social history is a superior complement to W.J. Rorabaugh's Kennedy and the Promise of the Sixties and is strongly recommended for public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/04.] Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Thurston Clarke's meticulous research uncovers many fascinating nuggets, including the debunking of the popular myth tha Ted Sorenson was the primary author of the speech. Read with just the right senes of nobility by Edward Herrmann, this audiobook offers something the print version can't—a recording of the actual JFK speech interspersed with play-by-play commentary" AudioFile
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805072136
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/28/2004
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author


Thurston Clarke has written nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including Pearl Harbor Ghosts and California Fault, a New York Times notable book. His articles have been published in Vanity Fair, Glamour, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Willsboro, New York, with his wife and three daughters.
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Read an Excerpt


From Ask Not:
We saw, in black and white, a cloudless sky, sharp light, and air so cold it turned Kennedy's breath into white clouds. When he said, "Let the word go forth from this time and place . . . " it appeared that each word he spoke really was going forth into the exhilarating air that everyone in the nation was breathing that day.
We saw a Currier and Ives tableau, wintry and patriotic. Wind ruffled the festive bunting and the marble façade of the Capitol gleamed. Sunlight bounced off snowbanks and spectators shielded their eyes. Rows of dignitaries filled the platform. The men wore dark overcoats and top hats, outfits for tycoons and statesmen. No one imagined that Rose Kennedy was fuming over her row-end seat, or that Eleanor Roosevelt had refused her place of honor because she could not bear being close to Kennedy's father, or that there was so much bad blood between the dignitaries on this platform that if grudges had weight, the entire contraption would have crashed to the ground.
Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon sat in a semicircle of armchairs. The four men's wives-all former and future First Ladies-sat behind them in the first row on either side of the podium. A faint smile remained frozen on Jackie Kennedy's face, as if she was party to some delicious secret.
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 21, 2011

    Sometimes hard to read but technically well researched and informative

    To read 'Ask Not' and 'The Last Campaign' are really good reads on JFK and Bobby Kennedy. I highly recommend.
    Thurston Clarke is a brilliant writer and both books are researched well and cover the varying controversies of the Kennedy era.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2005

    Insightful book!

    A thouroughly insightful, enjoyable, and well-written book! I recommend it to anyone - Kennedy and non-Kennedy fans allike! It is a new take on Kennedy and contains information I haven't found elsewhere!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2005

    Okay Read

    Though insightful to the events leading up to JFK's Inaugral adress, it seemed a bit inconsequential. This book contains informative information about the language contained in the speech, but at the same time it tended to be a bit lond winded. If one is interested in Kennedy's early forigen and domestic policy, i would recomend reading it, but i wouldn't consider it a must read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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