White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters

How John F. Kennedy’s most illustrious speeches were constructed.

John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address.

John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address.

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For many years, Robert Schlesinger accompanied his father, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the late historian and former adviser to John F. Kennedy, to gatherings of the Judson Welliver Society of former presidential speechwriters (Welliver was the first such writer). Schlesinger, a U.S. News deputy editor, soon became fascinated by the untold stories of this obscure craft. In his new book, White House Ghosts, Schlesinger, who interviewed 90 speechwriters and other key officials and collected nearly 30,000 pages of Oval Office documents, shines a light on some of the most iconic presidential speeches and the men and women who shaped them—like another Kennedy aide, Ted Sorensen.

On Nov. 8, 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy edged Vice President Richard M. Nixon, achieving a 120,000-vote plurality out of more than 68 million cast. Kennedy and his closest adviser and top aide, Ted Sorensen, commenced work on his inaugural address. Solicit suggestions, Kennedy said, and keep it short; make it forward looking, JFK said, marking the generational change for which he had campaigned.

On Thanksgiving 1960, a little over two weeks after the election, the newly minted White House special counsel dined at the home of his friend and deputy, Myer "Mike" Feldman. Retiring to Feldman's study, he made a first pass at the inaugural. Over the next month and a half, Sorensen worked on it in odd snatches of time. On December 23, he sent a Western Union telegram to 10 people, including former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who had been the Democratic standard-bearer in 1952 and 1956; economist John Kenneth Galbraith; and three future Kennedy cabinet secretaries—Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg, and Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon—soliciting their advice.

The president-elect flew down to Palm Beach on January 10. Sorensen had given him a six-page typed draft of the inaugural address. It contained the final basic structure and at least rough versions of many of the memorable phrases of the inaugural address. "So let the word go forth to all the world—and suit the action to the word—that this generation of Americans has no intention of becoming soft instead of resolute, smug instead of resourceful, or citizens of a second-rate power," the draft read, as compared with the final version: "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world."

Several contributors' work was in this draft. Sorensen liberally borrowed from Stevenson and Galbraith (whose "We shall never negotiate out of fear. But we shall never fear to negotiate" became the more exhortative "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate").

Using Sorensen's draft as a starting point, Kennedy dictated to his secretary another version of the speech that included important new material (a generation "born in this century—tempered by the war" and a willingness to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe"). He inserted several pages from the Sorensen draft, encompassing much of the body of the speech.

"Ask not." An early version of the famous "ask not" passage appeared in the Sorensen draft. Like other timeless sentiments, variations of this phrase had been expressed before. For example, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had said in 1884: "It is now the moment when by common consent we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what your country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return."

Kennedy had considered the idea at least as early as 1945. He had tried different riffs on it during the presidential campaign: Speaking on national television on September 20, he said, "We do not campaign stressing what our country is going to do for us as a people. We stress what we can do for the country, all of us."