According to Chris Matthews’ book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, JFK stole what was to become the best known quote of his 1961 inaugural address – “Ask not…” – from his old headmaster.
JFK enraged his former classmates by plagiarizing the line “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”, which they had heard “time and time again” in a similar form at school.
While JFK‘s presidential rival Richard Nixon became infamous for his dirty tricks, the book claims Kennedy was not above playing some of his own.
In the pivotal televised debate of the 1960 U.S. election, JFK demanded a ban on candidates wearing make-up – then applied some anyway.
It meant John F. Kennedy appeared tanned and natural, while Richard Nixon, his Republican opponent, looked haggard and sweaty, almost derailing his campaign.
U.S. author Chris Matthews makes the claims in Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero. The author unearthed notes written by George St John, the President’s former headmaster at Choate School in Connecticut, which suggest he had been aware of the “ask not” line for many years.
George St John’s notes quote a Harvard College dean’s refrain: “As has often been said, the youth who loves his Alma Mater will always ask not <<what can she do for me?>> but <<what can I do for her?>>”
Chris Matthews’ book also includes a reply to a questionnaire about JFK’s time at the school, sent to his former classmates when he was President. One of the students wrote: “I boil every time I read or hear the <<Ask not… etc.>> exhortation as being original with Jack.
“Time and time again we all heard [the headmaster] say that to the whole Choate family.”
JFK’ speech, delivered at his inauguration on Capitol Hill on January 20, 1961, was not, it seems, the first time he had resorted to underhand tactics.
Chris Matthews claims in the book that JFK gave himself an unfair advantage when he squared off against Richard Nixon in the first of four televised “Great Debates” on September 26, 1960, the first time such an event had taken place in America.
While JFK was charismatic and seemed at ease, Richard Nixon appeared shifty and blended into the background because of his grey suit.
According to the author, JFK had a helping hand, as his camp had insisted there was a ban on make-up, but then did not follow their own rules. Richard Nixon’s did, with disastrous consequences.
When Richard Nixon’ sweating started to become apparent and his staff secretly turned down the thermostat in the studio, JFK’s team quietly put it back up.
For the 70 million viewers watching at home – for whom it was the first chance to see both candidates – the contrast was striking.
History tells us that JFK won the debate, but some studies have found that those who heard the debate on the radio actually preferred Richard Nixon.
In the end, appearance triumphed over substance and JFK won the election. He went on to serve as president until 1963, when he was assassinated.
Richard Nixon had to wait until 1969 to enter the White House, remaining President until 1974, when he was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal.
The extraordinary revelation is sure to raise eyebrows among historians when Chris Matthews’ book is published this week.
The “Ask not…” speech has long been thought to have written with the input o JFK’s poetic speechwriter Theodore C. Sorensen.
Theodore C. Sorensen, who died in 2010, helped idealize and immortalize the JFK’s tragically brief administration.
The speecwriter was best known for working with JFK on passages of soaring rhetoric, including the 1961 inaugural address, which also proclaimed that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”.
But who wrote what has always been blurred – political historians say that John F. Kennedy and Theodore C. Sorensen were so inextricably linked that perhaps only they knew who scripted what parts of the speeches.
Theodore C. Sorensen, an adoring follower of JFK, never took credit for the president’s timeless phrases – saying that it was a totally collaborative effort.
What is certain is that of the many speeches Theodore C. Sorensen helped compose, JFK’s inaugural address shone the brightest.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations includes four citations from the speech – about a seventh of the entire address, which built to the unforgettable “Ask not…” exhortation.
Much of the roughly 14-minute speech – the fourth-shortest inaugural address ever, but in the view of many experts rivalled only by Abraham Lincoln’s – was marked by similar sparkling phrase-making.
Theodore C. Sorensen said he drew inspiration for the speech from the Bible, from Abraham Lincoln – and from the rousing wartime speeches of British prime minister Winston Churchill.
Chris Matthews, 65, is a former presidential speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and press secretary for long-time Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill.
Chris Matthews’ book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, published this week, is his sixth book.
Highlights of JFK’s 1961 inaugural address
Frequently cited as one of the best speeches ever made, JFK’s 14-minute inauguration address in January 1961 was marked by sparkling phrase-making, including:
* “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, 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.”
* “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
* “So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”
* “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
* “We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”
* “And so, my fellow Americans – ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”