Yesterday’s post looked at Dwight D Eisenhower’s two inaugurations in 1953 and 1957.
Today’s explores John F Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961. To date, he is the only Roman Catholic to have ever been president. He was the youngest man to ever be elected president, aged 43. There are more firsts below.
In his farewell address, Eisenhower spoke of the ‘unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex’ (8:55):
We still do not know whether the military-industrial complex was involved in Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963, but it was a very sad time for millions of Americans.
This is the measured interview Eisenhower gave on that fateful occasion. It’s only five minutes long and well worth watching. Note how he evades sensational questions from the media:
It should be noted that the reference to Kennedy’s presidency as Camelot came after his brutal death. His widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (later Onassis), came up with it. Camelot was her favourite musical. It was written by one of her late husband’s classmates at Harvard, Alan Jay Lerner.
Kennedy was not as fortunate as his predecessor for inaugural weather.
A strong nor’easter blew through Washington, DC — as well as much of New England and the mid-Atlantic states — on January 19. It was a Category 3 — major — storm.
In Washington, temperatures were cold: 20 °F (−7 °C). A total of eight inches of snow fell that day. Travel was severely disrupted, preventing Herbert Hoover from attending the inauguration.
Prospects looked grim for the Inauguration Day parade, however, Wikipedia states that clearing the snow began as soon as possible:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was put in charge of clearing the streets during the evening and morning before the inauguration, and were assisted by more than 1,000 District of Columbia employees and 1,700 boy scouts. This task force employed hundreds of dump trucks, front-end loaders, sanders, plows, rotaries, and flamethrowers to clear the route. Over 1,400 cars which had been stranded due to the conditions and lack of fuel had to be removed from the parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue.
On the morning of January 20, Kennedy attended Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church near his home in Georgetown.
Afterwards, he made his way to the White House to have coffee with the Eisenhowers and the Nixons.
Once the ceremony began at the Capitol building, the invocation and prayers took a total of 28 minutes. Cardinal Richard Cushing gave a 12-minute invocation. Additional prayers were given by Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Revd Dr John Barclay of the Central Christian Church in Austin, TX and by Rabbi Nelson Glueck. He gave the blessing.
The internationally renowned black contralto Marian Anderson sang The Star Spangled Banner, as she had done for Eisenhower in 1957. Although the new president mouthed the words, he neglected something which raised the ire of a television viewer (emphases mine below):
Kennedy could be seen mouthing the words to the second verse, but that was not good enough for Eugene Hunt, of Dallas, who sent a telegram to the White House that day demanding to know: why wasn’t your hand over your heart during the playing of the star-spangled banner? Some things never change.
Leonard Bernstein of West Side Story fame composed a special piece called Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy, which was then played.
After Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as vice president, Robert Frost recited a special poem which Kennedy had asked him to compose for the occasion. Unfortunately, the 86-year-old had a difficult time reading it because of the glare from the sun on the snow. Johnson tried to shield the glare with his top hat, but Frost rejected his help. Realising that time was of the essence, Frost instead recited his famous poem The Gift Outright. He later gave his handwritten inauguration poem to Stewart Udall, the incoming Secretary of the Interior, with a request for him to type the text. Udall duly obliged. These are the closing lines from For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration which aptly sum up the mood of much of the nation at that time:
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
Kennedy took his oath of office on a closed family Bible.
He gave his famous inaugural address which was only 1364 words long and took just under 14 minutes to deliver. The whole world knows lines such as the following:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
With that responsible outlook, I doubt Kennedy would have been allowed to be a Democrat today.
He and speech-writer Ted Sorenson crafted the address with input from close friends of the president.
This line was nearly identical to the one suggested by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith:
Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
This one came from a suggestion by Adlai Stevenson II (Eisenhower’s Democratic rival in 1952 and 1956):
If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
Kennedy took office at the height of the Cold War. Echoing Eisenhower’s warning in his aforementioned speech, he talked about the dangers of combining an escalating arms race with nuclear power. In another nod to his predecessor, who advocated helping other nations in constructive ways, Kennedy said he would maintain good international relations and help the impoverished in less fortunate nations.
Kennedy was also keenly aware of civil rights. A Vanity Fair article from 2011 has a fascinating account of the inauguration, complete with interviews with people who were there. On this topic:
Harris Wofford, Kennedy’s civil-rights adviser, was listening intently to see if any of the language he and his colleague Louis Martin had suggested to reflect concern for civil rights had made it into the final draft. Six crucial words had. As Kennedy proclaimed himself “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,” he added the phrase “at home and around the world.”
“I was very happy he’d put it in,” Wofford, now 84, recalls. “And it made a considerable difference with the civil-rights constituency …”
Now onto a more mundane topic: hats. I wrote that Eisenhower traded the top hat for a homburg. Kennedy reverted to the more traditional silk top hat on Inauguration Day.
However, in everyday life, Kennedy went hatless. American men followed his example. For this reason, Kennedy was said to be the man who put paid to the hat industry. It might have been true. LBJ also eschewed hats, including at his inauguration in 1965.
The weather remained bitterly cold. Despite that, the inaugural parade was three hours long!
President Harry Truman joined the new president and first lady on the reviewing stand. Former first ladies Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt were also present. Wikipedia tells us:
Sixteen thousand members of the US armed forces marched with displays of modern weaponry like the Minuteman missile and the supersonic B-70 bomber. A further sixteen thousand marchers were civilians ranging from federal and state officials to high school bands and Boy Scouts, accompanied by forty floats.
In more recent inaugurations, floats have not made an appearance. More’s the pity. I used to enjoy them as a child. Many other people did, too.
Inauguration Day newsreel
This seven-minute newsreel gives an excellent summary of events, complete with subtitles:
After eight years of Eisenhower, Kennedy marked a big change in the presidency. As stated above, he is still the youngest to have been elected to that office. Furthermore, his predecessor was, at that time, the oldest to leave the White House. He was 70. It is interesting that Donald Trump has just been sworn in at that age. Reagan is currently the oldest president to leave office. All being well, Trump will surpass him.
The American public were highly aware that Eisenhower was a general during the Second World War while Kennedy was serving on a PT boat.
ABC News provided an interesting retrospective on Kennedy in 2011, the 50th anniversary of his inauguration. The article, complete with video, tells us:
Those close to him also remember him as an amiable, funny president, a marked departure from his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“President Kennedy, the first time he met you he asked your name and he never forgot it. The second time, he asked your wife’s name and your children’s names, and he was personable with the agents and very much a free spirit compared to President Eisenhower,” said Gerald Blaine, a Secret Service agent in Eisenhower and Kennedy’s security detail and co-author of the “The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence.”
“It was such a contrast because he was so young and was totally different.”
Kennedy also brought youth and intrigue to the White House. His fashionable and glamorous wife, Jackie Kennedy, and two young children, captured the fancy of Americans in a way that no other first family had done before.
“To have that after the years of Eisenhower and Truman and Roosevelt, suddenly to have this young energetic family was just a complete shot of adrenaline into the city, and tons and tons of young people came to town to participate in government,” [reporter Cokie] Roberts said.
The ABC article explains that Cokie Roberts was a college freshman at the time and, because of the weather, couldn’t make it to the inauguration. However, she has been a reporter ever since I can remember. So have other news broadcasting veterans such as CBS’s Bob Schieffer, who appeared during the 2016 election to offer his opinion and a historic perspective.
Although Schieffer was working at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram during Kennedy’s presidency, his career evolved on the day of the assassination in Dallas. A woman who asked him for a ride to the scene turned out to be Marguerite Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. Through her, he also met Oswald’s wife Marina. The scoops kept coming and coming that day and he received his first major journalistic recognition. Later, he was promoted to the Star-Telegram‘s television station. He joined CBS in 1969.
It’s also worth noting that Kennedy’s Peace Corps attracted no end of volunteers, hopeful that they could effect positive change in the poorest countries.
Jackie Kennedy captivated not only the international media but millions of women around the world.
Not many people alive today know that on Inauguration Day she was still recovering from the caesarian birth of her son John, born late in November 1960. As a result, Kennedy attended several events before and after the inauguration on his own.
The following interview, which Jackie gave two months after the inauguration, gives us a glimpse into this young first lady, only 30 years old. On the one hand, she has a breathy, girly voice. On the other, she clearly understands art, antiques and the history of the White House. She tells the interviewer, Sandur Vanocur (another household name of the day), that she would like to make ‘a museum’ out of what she rightly called the people’s house. He asks her why there are so few antiques. She tells him that the first pieces were destroyed in the War of 1812. Subsequent presidents auctioned off furniture at the end of their terms. It was only in 1902 that Theodore Roosevelt put a stop to the practice (1:50):
On February 14, 1962, she gave an update on her work, which comprised an hour-long documentary. Her voice is less breathy, now velvety smooth. Her hairstyle and attire also changed. Enjoy this tour, complete with old photographs as well as antiques:
John F Kennedy attended all five inaugural balls. Because of her poor health at the time, Jackie only made it to two.
Business Insider has a photo of her with the president looking captivating in a gown and cape she co-designed with the designer. Melania Trump did the same in 2017.
Jackie wore the gown not only to the inaugural balls on January 20 but also to one held the night before, given by Frank Sinatra and actor Peter Lawford, John Kennedy’s brother-in-law. Both were members of the Rat Pack, who were closely associated with the Kennedys, much to the chagrin of pious Protestants.
Kennedy’s father, Joseph, also held a ball that night, which his son attended. Jackie did not, again, for health reasons.
Sinatra’s ball was considered one of the biggest parties ever held in Washington. It was held at the DC Armory, the prime venue for inaugural balls. Sinatra recruited big celebrities of the day and tickets were priced to garner as much money as possible to pay off the debt of the Democratic Party campaign. Wikipedia says:
With tickets ranging from $100 per person to $10,000 per group, Sinatra hoped to raise $1.7 million ($13.6 million in today’s dollars) for the Democratic Party to eliminate its debt brought on by a hard-fought campaign.
Vanity Fair notes:
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.
Quite possibly. Carl Anthony at carlanthonyonline.com writes in ‘Inauguration Swinging-Sixties Style: LBJ’s Big Day, 1965’ that Lyndon Baines Johnson had many celebrities at his inauguration celebrations.
Returning to Sinatra’s ball, Vanity Fair says:
The bill was thoroughly integrated. Five of the two dozen performers were black: Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald.
The magazine gives us yet another first for Kennedy’s inauguration. On January 20:
J.F.K. would become the first president to dance with black women at an inaugural ball.
I cannot think of an inauguration that had as many well known people in such diverse fields as Kennedy’s.
At the inauguration ceremony, Robert Frost was not the only poet in attendance. Carl Sandburg was also there. Authors John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway attended. Artist Mark Rothko showed up. So did Mr and Mrs T Reed Vreeland. If that name looks familiar, Diana Vreeland was soon to become the editor of Vogue, a post she held for many years.
Vanity Fair introduces ‘From That Day Forth’, their article on the Kennedy inauguration, as follows:
Washington was bracing for what became perhaps the biggest and best political party of the 20th century—a “gilt-edged, mink-lined, silk-hatted, 10-gallon, 100-proof” celebration, as a greenhorn Washington Post reporter named Tom Wolfe summed it up at the time. Everyone who was anyone in Democratic politics was there, or wanted to be. The president-elect and his elegant wife, Jacqueline, had made a special point of inviting not only the usual hacks and flacks but also a select group of scholars, artists, writers, and thinkers …
That is what characterised not only the inauguration — more pictures here — but the short-lived Kennedy White House. I can understand why it captivated my parents and how these names first entered my consciousness.
Even though I was a little nipper, no White House has come close to matching the magic of the Kennedys’.
Coming soon: the Trump inauguration