By Richard Reeves
Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States. He gave a stirring inaugural address and then took over a job for which he was unprepared. No one is ever prepared. The presidency is essentially a reactive job, with a man standing alone facing crises unforeseen.
As good as Kennedy’s inaugural was, the speeches that define him historically were given within just over 50 hours in June 1963, one of them prepared secretly over months, the other practically ad-libbed.
This is the story of those hours and those speeches:
At 9:15 a.m., June 10, President Kennedy arrived in Washington from a trip to Hawaii for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. On the way home he had stopped in San Francisco to pick up his principal speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, and they spent the flight making final edits in what was called "the peace speech," an effort known to only a few men.
Kennedy, whose back was in pain, stopped at the White House for a short, steaming bath, then rode out to American University, where he gave the speech at 10:15 a.m. He said: "Some say it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament. ... But I believe we should re-examine ... our own attitude ... toward the Soviet Union. ... For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal."
It was more complicated than that, of course, but he reached out to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a number of unprecedented ways. At 11:20 he returned to the White House—then waited for a Soviet answer. He was despondent for hours, then at midnight, Teletypes began to clack with the news that in Moscow, Izvestia had reprinted the entire speech, word for word, on its front page—nothing like that had ever happened before.
But by then, Kennedy had learned that the governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace, had taken over the state university and was standing at its main gateway with armed guards to block the entrance of the school’s first two Negro students—defying a federal court order to admit James Hood and Vivian Malone. That was also when he learned that a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc had burned himself to death in the main intersection of Saigon—in protest of the oppression of the American-imposed government of South Vietnam.
Against the advice of his advisers, Kennedy decided to go on television to talk about Alabama and race. He had avoided that because he was caught in the middle between white Southerners, Democrats, who controlled the Congress, and Negro Democratic voters who adored the new president.
Speaking often from only notes—or no notes at all—this is what he said:
"This is not a sectional issue. ... Nor is this a partisan issue. ... This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. ... We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. ... If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public schools available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him ... then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed?"
The leader of a great democracy had chosen the minority over the majority. No small thing.
The speech seemed so powerful to the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Mississippi that he called his wife to tell her to keep their children up late. He wanted to drive home and talk to them about what had just happened. As he got out of the car, he was shot from bushes across the street. Medgar Evers bled to death in front of his wife and children.
That is what it is like to be president. That is what it was like to be John Kennedy.
© 2011 Universal Uclick
Official White House portrait of John F. Kennedy