Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Still the greatest inaugural address

I was 19 years old — a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin. The summer before, my father, a vice president at Brown & Root, had been a delegate from Texas to the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Although he was a major supporter of Adlai Stevenson, he was pledged to Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas because, back then, Texas had something called the Unit Rule. The Unit Rule stated that the candidate supported by the majority of the delegation would be the candidate supported by the entire delegation.

There were five serious candidates vying for the Democration nomination for president — Stevenson, Johnson, Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Missouri Senator Stuart Symington and a brash young Irish-Catholic senator from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

My dad did me an immense favor by taking me with him to the convention in Los Angeles. On Monday of that week, former President Harry S Truman, an avid Symington supporter, blew into town and held a news conference at the train station saying that, at 41. Kennedy was simply too young to be president. Kennedy’s camp announced the Massachusetts senator would not only answer the charge, but answer it a meeting of the Missouri delegation’s caucus the following day. My dad took me to that caucus and I heard Kennedy deliver a speech in which he outlined all the things that could not have happened in our history had individuals 41 or under be denied positions of responsibility. He ended his list with these words "…and Columbus could not have discovered America." My dad turned to me at that moment and said "There’s your next president."

I was not in Washington when Kennedy delivered his inaugural address — still the greatest in history (Proof: I doubt if anyone can quote a line from any other inaugural address, but millions who weren’t even born when Kennedy was elected knows "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.") But I’ll never forget how it electrified and energized me when I saw it on a black and white TV in Austin, Texas.

When I saw this superb re-interpretation of this great speech, prepared by the Harvard Kennedy School, it saddens me more than it electrifies or energizes. Perhaps that’s because the Kennedy presidency lasted only around 1,000 days and ended so tragically. If watching this doesn’t bring a lump to your throat or a tear to your eye, then you’re just too young. But you can still appreciate its majesty and purity of thought.

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