JFK, FDR, and the Secret History of How a Great Inaugural Address Is Written

Presidents can get their due credit even when we know about their collaborators.

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Flash ahead nearly three decades. On Jan. 17, 1961, a Convair 240 twin-engine plane named the Caroline after its owner's daughter, flew north from Florida to Washington. The owner, President-elect John F. Kennedy, sat with Time magazine reporter Hugh Sidey in the private section of the plane's cabin, a yellow legal pad in front of him, a few paragraphs scratched out in his impenetrable handwriting. "It's tough," JFK told Sidey, referring to the process of drafting an inaugural address. His farewell address to the Massachusetts legislature had gone so well, Kennedy told Sidey, that it created a tough standard to meet.

Sidey watched the president-elect, stunned. How was it possible that with only three days before the transfer of power, Kennedy was still working on the first draft of his speech?

In fact, a near-finished version of the speech was elsewhere on the plane, typed up.

JFK had first met his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, in 1953 when Kennedy was putting together his Senate staff. At first glance, they appeared an unlikely pairing. Sorensen hailed from Nebraska and came from a GOP family. He was, home-state friend William Lee Miller later wrote, "not a Harvard man or an Easterner or a Catholic or an Irishman or a hereditary Democrat, or a political middler or culturally sophisticated or rich or an aristocrat or an urbanite or an intellectual dilettante or widely traveled or weak on the civil-liberties side or primarily interested in Why England Slept type of foreign affairs or a master of the Ivy League casual style or anything at all of a playboy. He was instead, insofar as these things have opposites, somewhere near the opposite of all of them."

Nevertheless, by the 1960 presidential election, the pair had become a remarkable collaborative speechwriting team. Sorensen later credited the years leading up to that election, when he and Kennedy traveled the country together laying the groundwork for the race, as having helped give him such a clear sense of JFK. "Those three and a half years of traveling the country together made an enormous difference," Sorensen said. "There were all kinds of press stories—some of them exaggerations—about how I was inside his mind, could finish his sentences, knew what he was thinking before he said it. Well, I think maybe there is something to that. That's a tremendous advantage for a speechwriter to know his boss's mind as well as I did."

Kennedy and Sorensen first discussed the inaugural address in the weeks after the 1960 presidential election. Kennedy told Sorensen to read all the previous inaugurals ("undistinguished," Sorensen thought) and the Gettysburg Address, whose genius Sorensen was tasked with figuring out. (Sorensen concluded that in the speech Lincoln "never used a two- or three-syllable word where a one-syllable word would do, and never used three words where one word would do.") He read other great speeches like Pericles's Funeral Oration. He solicited suggestions from the likes of Adlai Stevenson and John Kenneth Galbraith.

By the time JFK flew from Washington to Palm Beach on Jan. 10, 1961, Sorensen had prepared a six-page typed draft of the speech that roughly followed the final address's outline and had early versions of several of the memorable sections. "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. In the final speech that section would become: "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."

"So, ask not what your country is going to do for you," the draft read. "Ask what you can for your country."