Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Inaugural History Feature of the Week: JFK

John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT will feature an inaugural speech by a previous president from the Miller Center’s archives.

This week marks the 49th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas. With this anniversary in mind, RTT highlights JFK’s inaugural address as well as some of our resources on his assassination.

In preparing for his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961, JFK sought to capitalize on the moment to both inspire the country as well as to discuss the challenges confronting the country in the Cold War. He wanted the speech to be both concise and devoid of partisan rhetoric. JFK tapped his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, to study previous inaugural speeches, especially Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in order to help the president craft a successful speech. JFK told Sorenson, “I don’t want people to think I’m a windbag,” and he also enlisted suggestions from friends and advisors.

A few years ago, Sorenson surmised that the speech “was not Kennedy's best” and “may not even have been Kennedy's most important speech historically, in terms of its impact on our planet.” However, it was “world-changing.” In Kennedy, Sorenson wrote that JFK thought that earlier drafts of the speech focused too heavily on domestic issues and the following lines were cut from the speech:

We must begin by facing the fact that history’s most abundant economy has slackened its growth to a virtual halt. That the world’s most productive farmers have only suffered for their success. . . . That too many of our cities are sinking into squalor.

One of the most significant cuts from earlier versions of the speech was a reference to civil rights:

Our nation’s most precious resource, our youth, are developed according to their race or funds, instead of their own capability.

The reason for the omission of important domestic issues was JFK’s belief that they would inherently raise partisan divisions. Instead, JFK sought to demonstrate his grasp of global issues and the passing of the torch of leadership to a new generation. Thus, the final version of the speech stressed concern for global poverty and opposition to dictatorships. It also stressed America’s role as a champion of liberty throughout the world:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

JFK’s Inaugural Address also emphasized America’s preference for negotiations and cooperation in the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. While attempting to downplay tensions on the one hand, JFK also sought to convey American resolve.