Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address and John F. Kennedy's inaugural are rightly remembered as among the best speeches presidents have given to commence their terms. FDR's admonition that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" and his confident, calming tone soothed the jangled national psyche at a critical moment. Kennedy's singing imagery of a new generation of Americans coming to power with a spirit of self-sacrifice ("Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country") inspired the nation and set the tone for his administration.
But the two speeches have something more in common: a secret history, or perhaps a history of secrets.
It starts with two men sitting in the library of a mansion in Hyde Park, N.Y., one evening in February 1933. A bright fire roared in the fireplace, and they sipped whiskeys. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president-elect of the United States, sat at a folding card table, poring over two manuscripts. The first was a typed speech draft. The second was a handwritten copy that Roosevelt was laboriously writing out on a yellow legal pad. A third document, a letter from Thomas Lamont of the JPMorgan & Co. giving a dire warning of the condition of the nation's banks, also lay on the table.
"How do you spell foreclose?" FDR asked his companion, Raymond Moley. A Columbia University professor of public law, Moley had piercing eyes and would sometimes smoke a heavy, dark pipe. He had known Roosevelt since the 1928 gubernatorial campaign and in those years had become a close aide and his principal speechwriter. The two men had been talking since the previous September about what Roosevelt might tell the country when elected president. And now, with less than a week before FDR would be sworn in (the 25th Amendment, moving the inaugural from March 4 to January 20, would not take effect until the 1936 presidential elections), Moley had brought a draft of the speech to Roosevelt.
FDR had read it over carefully and then noted that he had better copy it out by hand: His aide, Louis Howe, was due to arrive at Hyde Park the following day and would "have a fit" if he suspected that anyone else beside FDR had worked on the speech. Howe, 5 foot 4 and weighing less than 100 pounds with a hollow, pitted face, was nicknamed "the Medieval Gnome." He had been a political mentor to FDR and devoted aide who was territorially jealous of other assistants getting too close.
So, FDR had started copying out the speech, editing as he went. The two men talked through every sentence, occasionally mulling each word, as Roosevelt moved through the speech. There were interruptions—incoming Treasury Secretary Will Woodin telephoned, as did incoming Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Sometimes, the Roosevelt-Moley conversation wandered. Gripped by the notion of witnessing history, Moley pulled out his notebook at one point and scribbled some notes: "A week—yes, five days—this man will be Pres. of the U.S."
Sometime past midnight, they finished. Moley rose from the long couch on which he had been sitting, took his typed draft from the table and tossed it onto the still-glowing embers in the fireplace. "This is your speech now," he told his boss.
FDR had that sort of ownership in mind more than Moley knew. The handwritten draft is on file at the FDR Presidential Library at Hyde Park, with a typed note from the president attached to it explaining that it is "the Inaugural Address as written at Hyde Park on Monday, February 27, 1933. I started in about 9.00 P.M. and end at 1.30 A.M. A number of minor changes were made in subsequent drafts but the final draft is substantially the same as this original."
Moley is pointedly omitted from this account, conjuring an image of FDR writing his great speech alone. And it is an image that held for more than three decades until Moley, incensed, published a White House memoir (his second) setting the historical record straight.
FDR's ploy also met its immediate goal as well. Howe arrived the next day and gave the speech an edit of his own, dictating a version with a new first paragraph, which included the exhortation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
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."
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.