A close-up on one of American history's most magical events, JFK's inaugural week, and the creation of the speech that inspired a generation and brought hope to a nation
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." On the January morning when John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency and stood to speak those words, America was divided, its citizens torn by fears of war. Kennedy's speech-called the finest since Lincoln at Gettysburg and the most memorable of any twentieth-century American politician-did more than reassure: it changed lives, marking the start of a brief, optimistic era of struggle against "tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."
Ask Not is a beautifully detailed account of the week leading up to the inaugural which stands as one of the most moving spectacles in the history of American politics. At the heart of the narrative is Kennedy's quest to create a speech that would distill American dreams and empower a new generation. Thurston Clarke's portrait of JFK during what intimates called his happiest days is balanced, revealing the President at his most dazzlingly charismatic-and cunningly pragmatic. As the snow covers Washington in a blanket of white, as statesmen and celebrities arrive for candlelit festivities, the perfectionist Kennedy pushes himself to the limit, to find the words that would capture what he most truly believed and which would far outlast his own life. For everyone who seeks to understand the fascination with all things Kennedy, the answer can be found in Ask Not.
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Thurston Clarke has written nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including Pearl Harbor Ghosts and California Fault, a New York Times notable book. His articles have been published in Vanity Fair, Glamour, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Willsboro, New York, with his wife and three daughters.
From Ask Not:
We saw, in black and white, a cloudless sky, sharp light, and air so cold it turned Kennedy's breath into white clouds. When he said, "Let the word go forth from this time and place . . . " it appeared that each word he spoke really was going forth into the exhilarating air that everyone in the nation was breathing that day.
We saw a Currier and Ives tableau, wintry and patriotic. Wind ruffled the festive bunting and the marble façade of the Capitol gleamed. Sunlight bounced off snowbanks and spectators shielded their eyes. Rows of dignitaries filled the platform. The men wore dark overcoats and top hats, outfits for tycoons and statesmen. No one imagined that Rose Kennedy was fuming over her row-end seat, or that Eleanor Roosevelt had refused her place of honor because she could not bear being close to Kennedy's father, or that there was so much bad blood between the dignitaries on this platform that if grudges had weight, the entire contraption would have crashed to the ground.
Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon sat in a semicircle of armchairs. The four men's wives-all former and future First Ladies-sat behind them in the first row on either side of the podium. A faint smile remained frozen on Jackie Kennedy's face, as if she was party to some
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