Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book review - Ask Not

As a lecturer in Communications and a history graduate, Ask Not has all the right ingredients to appeal to me in a book. In a fascinating account, rich with historical details and primary research, Thurston Clarke traces JFK's inaugural address from conception to delivery. One of the most celebrated speeches of the 21st Century, its themes of service to community still resonate today.

Rumors (and truths) that Ted Sorenson had written much of JFK's Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage meant that JFK was particularly eager to establish his own authentic ownership of the inaugural. While the true picture emerges as a more complex interaction between Sorenson and Kennedy, who like all good speech writing teams had taken on aspects of each others writing, Clarke argues compellingly that the most memorable passages of the speech came from Kennedy.

Clarke is clearly enamored with JFK and anyone who has read the similarly excellent The Last Campaign, the first chapter of which is available free as a Vanity Fair extract, would be well aware of his political leanings. However, this no mere hagiography. Clarke gives time over to many of the issues which plagued JFK's, such as his affairs, conceited connections with celebrity and impatience with others whom he did not feel worthy of his respect. Its all the richer and more compelling for these details. One of the most amusing moment finds Frank Sinatra smashing his 'presidential helipad' as JFK seeks to create distance from him by electing not to stay at his house in the months following the inauguration.

One of the most interesting things in the book is an explanation of how it marked the transition from print to video as the primary means of presidential communication. The carefully stage managed spectacle and the close relationships which Kennedy fostered with television executives presaged a broader shift in political culture. I'd highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the history of the period, or exploring the intricacies involved in crafting a speech for the ages.

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