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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Using the Sorensen draft, Kennedy dictated a new version to his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, adding key concepts like a generation "born in this century—tempered by war" and a willingness to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe."

JFK passed the next several days at La Guerida, his father's Spanish Revival mansion in Palm Beach. He worked back and forth with Sorensen, who was in Washington, on the speech while wrapping up other preparations for his administration, mixing in rounds of golf and a generous amount of tanning. Jacqueline Kennedy later recalled hearing the address in "bits and pieces" over the course of the week. Sorensen flew down to Florida on January 16 and joined Kennedy, Sidey, and others for the flight back to Washington.

When he played at writing a first draft for Sidey, JFK could not have known he was echoing FDR: Ray Moley's account of his involvement with Roosevelt's first inaugural address would not be published for another five years.

In both cases, the presidents-elect had an eye toward history, toward ensuring that they alone received full credit for their inaugural addresses. JFK in particular had already been stung by allegations that someone else (presumably Sorensen) had authored Profiles in Courage. At moments of less immediate historic import, both men took a more generous attitude regarding acknowledging their speech collaborators.

But in a larger sense, both men missed the point regarding authorial credit. Moley and Sorensen were not writing in vacuums or for themselves. They were reflecting the men who would give the speeches. And regardless of who first committed what word to paper, it is the president who delivers the speech who owns it and deserves full credit for it, for better or worse: The president puts himself and his credibility behind a speech, imbues it with his authority and office.

And while sentiments like having only to fear fear or placing country before self have appeared in different ways over the centuries, we recall these specific moments not only because of phrasing but because the words matched the men and both suited the broader historical moment.

Robert Schlesinger is a deputy assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report. His White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters (Simon & Schuster, 2008) was recently released in paperback.