On 20 January 1961, despite deep snow and plunging temperatures, as many as 20,000 people converged on Capitol Hill in Washington, all eager to bear witness to history in the making – the inauguration of John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the Unites States.
The American Camelot
To all those huddled against the biting cold, and many millions besides, John Fitzgerald Kennedy represented all that was new and exciting about their country. JFK and Jackie (who had given birth to the couple’s first son, John Jr, just two months previously) brought glamour, refinement and culture to the White House that had become sober and dull under the grandfatherly President Dwight D Eisenhower. For many, Kennedy’s inauguration heralded a bright new dawn for American politics. At just 43 years of age, he was the youngest man ever to be elected President. He was also the first Roman Catholic. With youth, charisma and widespread popularity on his side, the future seemed bright.
In fact, so intertwined was Kennedy to this sense of national well-being that his time in office became known as the American Camelot.
“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”
Indeed, with this enormous weight of expectation bearing down heavily on his shoulders, it would have been understandable if Kennedy had faltered on this, the most important day of his life. But falter he didn’t. Instead, after solemnly swearing the Oath of Office, he stepped up to the podium and delivered one of the most inspiring speeches in American political history.
Co-written with his long-time collaborator, Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s inaugural address, delivered in his trademark Bostonian drawl, was a masterpiece in soaring rhetoric. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike”, he declared, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans […] Let every nation know […]that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Unfortunately, on the bitter cold January day in 1961, neither Kennedy nor the American people could have known just how soon these lofty ideals would be put to the ultimate test.