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Pat MurphyAs Donald Trump’s inauguration looms, many people of a certain age will cast back to another winter day years ago. On Jan. 19, 1961, John F. Kennedy took the oath of office in a cold, snowy Washington and millions of people were inspired to believe that all would be well with the world.

The extent to which that moment still resonates is surprising. I know one staunch fan of U.S. president-elect Trump who, with a catch in his throat, volunteers that no political leader has ever touched him the way Kennedy did and that the magic has never faded.

The inaugural festivities that year were a giddy affair. On the evening preceding, Frank Sinatra presided over a star-studded gala featuring the cream of Hollywood and Broadway. Journalist Todd Purdum retrospectively caught the essence: “It was an only-in-America blend of high culture and low comedy, of schmaltz and camp, and it may have marked the moment when popular entertainment became an indispensable part of modern politics.”

But the most enduring memories of the inauguration owe nothing to Hollywood stars or promenading celebrities. Rather, they have to do with Kennedy.

One memory is of him, youthfully vigorous, taking the oath while hatless and coatless in the frigid January air.

The other is his inaugural address.

At 1,364 words, Kennedy’s address was short by inaugural standards. However, it’s still viewed as one of the most memorable 20th century speeches. It’s hard to find anything that equals it for elegantly heroic soundbites.

The speech’s third paragraph set the tone:

“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.”

But although Kennedy’s address generally earned rave reviews, there was the odd dissenter.

Milton Friedman, the libertarian economist and later Nobel Prize winner, took issue with Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” exhortation. Rather than finding this inspirational, Friedman thought it posited an undesirable master/servant relationship between government and citizen.

And looking back, those of us who were gung-ho for Kennedy in 1961 might feel some degree of discomfort about our naiveté.

For one thing, the image of robust vigour now seems to have been a carefully cultivated sham. Or, if sham is too strong, it’s certainly fair to say that the reality was far more complicated than we were led to believe.

Biographer Richard Reeves describes Kennedy as “sick and in pain much of the time,” and as someone whose low energy level meant that he “retired early most nights, read in bed until 9 a.m. or so each morning, and napped an hour each afternoon.” He also suffered from Addison’s disease (when the adrenal glands don’t produce enough steroid hormones), was particularly susceptible to infections, required constant medication and sometimes privately used crutches to deal with recurrent back pain.

More problematic, however, is the link between Kennedy’s Cold War orthodoxy and what most people have come to see as the tragic American involvement in Vietnam. After all, it was Kennedy who deepened the American commitment to a non-communist South Vietnam, significantly increased the number of American military “advisers” and incurred the first American military casualties.

One of the inaugural address’s most stirring invocations was the line declaring 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.” It doesn’t take much imagination to connect that mindset with the decisions that culminated in what ultimately turned out to be a quagmire in Vietnam.

Still, none of this is likely to dim the nostalgia that many people feel. Kennedy was stylish, elegant and capable of touching something within. And if he hadn’t been murdered, who knows how he’d have ultimately worked out.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

© Troy Media

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