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John F. Kennedy: The Inauguration of Hope and Change

From left to right:
Google Earth Image of the U.S. Capitol. The red star indicates the location of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Edited by Olin Library Map Room Staff.
The Swearing-in of President John F. Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961. Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer.
Inauguration. Kennedy Sworn In, New Era Begins. A film still from the reel produced by Universal Studios for the U.S. Federal Government.
Inaugural Address of President John F. Kennedy. Produced by the U.S Army Signal Corps. In the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Draft of the Inaugural Address of President John F. Kennedy, Jan 17, 1961. From the collection of the U.S. National Archives and Administration.
Daily Weather Map for Washington, D.C., for Jan. 20, 1961. U.S. Daily Weather Map Project, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

John F. Kennedy has had an enormous impact on the world. He became a symbol of change in the status quo and inspired men and women throughout the world to tackle difficult challenges of the age. A November 2010 Gallup Poll gave him the highest retrospective job approval rating of the nine presidents who have served in the past 50 years.

On January 20, 1961, Kennedy was sworn in at 43 years of age, the youngest elected U.S. president to this day, and the only Roman Catholic. He won the election by the smallest popular vote margin in modern times until the 2000 election.

There were some thoughts of cancelling the inauguration ceremony when heavy snow fell the day before the inauguration and temperatures hovered at 10 degrees below freezing. On Inauguration Day, however, the weather cooperated, allowing Kennedy to deliver the speech for which he is best remembered. That speech is only 1364 words, one of the shortest inaugural addresses ever delivered. Despite its brevity, it is widely considered to be among the best presidential inauguration speeches in American history.

Kennedy wanted his address to be short and clear, devoid of partisan rhetoric and focused on foreign policy. The climax of the speech and its most memorable phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” was honed down from thoughts about sacrifice that Kennedy had long held in mind and had expressed in various ways in campaign speeches.

Though minor by historic standards—a mere 8 inches—the unexpected snowstorm on the eve of Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961 caused massive traffic jams and forced planners to scramble to clear the inaugural parade route. The president-elect had to cancel dinner plans and, in a struggle to keep other commitments, is reported to have had only 4 hours of sleep. Former President Herbert Hoover was unable to fly into Washington National Airport and had to miss the swearing-in ceremony. By sunrise on January 20, the snow had stopped and skies were clearing, but the day remained bitterly cold. An army of men worked all night to clear Pennsylvania Avenue and despite the cold, a large crowd turned out for the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural parade.