In this age of media access with no boundaries at all, it’s sort of impossible to contemplate a time when pieces of oratory could actually feel special. President Barack Obama has brought a little bit of that back to the public forum (several of his speeches — including his inaugural address and his “Philadelphia speech” about race — have taken on mythic proportions), but generally speaking, people don’t hang on the words of great speakers very much anymore. That’s why John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address (which he delivered on this day in 1961, exactly half a century ago) still resonates strongly today. Not only was it a speech full of inspiration and substance, but it was also delivered by a master orator.
Kennedy remains the youngest person ever elected to the highest office in the country (and tragically was also the youngest to die after being assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963). He took advantage of a particular political climate (and an extremely weak challenger in Richard Nixon), but he mostly capitalized on the fact that he was a tremendous public speaker who found a way to inspire people during an extremely tumultuous time in our country’s history (which sounds sort of familiar, if you think about it). Kennedy’s words were powerful, and the key passage from his inaugural address lives on as an immortal mantra today: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” It’s a call to service and thoughtful patriotism that often goes unheeded today, but still retains its meaning.
In honor of Kennedy’s immortal words, crank up Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” which borrows the memorable line for a sample during the song’s climax. Kennedy may have been a cult of personality, but his intentions were pure and his abilities clear.