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Posted at 8:13 AM ET, 01/20/2011

John F. Kennedy inaugural address: On the question of civility (#jfkquotes)

By Melissa Bell
john f kennedy inauguration
(Leonard McCombe/Time & Life Pictures)

"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy took the podium outside the Capitol and gave his first speech as the president of the United States. The Post's Op-Ed columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. writes, "Tethered to its time and place, it still challenges with its ambition to harness realism to idealism, patriotism to service, national interest to universal aspiration." In the wake of all the conversation surrounding civility and political rhetoric following the tragedy in Tucson, one section of the speech jumped out at me today:

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. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

At the time, Kennedy was discussing how he hoped to work with the Soviet Union, but the words could fit today's discussion just as well as they worked 50 years ago.

What's your favorite line from John F. Kennedy? Use #jfkquotes or leave it in the comments.

And check out the full gallery of inaugural pictures -- including the bison-riding cowboy and Jackie Kennedy's ball gown -- at

john f kennedy inauguration
Jackie and John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, and others prepare at the White House for the inauguration. The founding of the Peace Corps; the Bay of Pigs debacle; the Cuban Missile Crisis -- in less than three years, JFK and his circle initiated federal programs and weathered political storms that still resonate five decades on. (Ed Clark/Time & Life Pictures)
john f kennedy inauguration
In a photograph that, five decades later, feels at once haunted and familiar, a smiling Kennedy and the first lady ride through cheering crowds in the inaugural parade, their very clothes evoking a similar sunny scene enacted less than three years later, in Dallas. (Leonard McCombe/Time & Life Pictures)

For the full speech:

Google also gave a shout-out to the 35th president in today's doodle:


Here are a few readers favorite quotes:

"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." #jfkquotesless than a minute ago via web

@washingtonpost "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." #jfkquotesless than a minute ago via web

RT @TOTNationDC "The war against hunger is truly mankind's war of liberation." - John F. Kennedy #NoKidHungry #JFKQuotes (@washingtonpost)less than a minute ago via web

By Melissa Bell  | January 20, 2011; 8:13 AM ET
Categories:  Picture Shows  
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Republicans abide by "ask not what your country can do; ask what you can do for your country".
What happened to Democrats? They obviously Don't agree with JFK's main message!
Democrats are the Party of Entitlements;
Republicans are the Party of Empowerment.

Posted by: ohioan | January 20, 2011 10:34 AM | Report abuse we go again, with the Republicans making Democrats out to be villains. Really, Ohioan? Really?

I think if you look back at the last 30+ years of the presidency, and look with open eyes at the national deficit you may see a different color altogether.

The problem is not Republican v. Democrat. The problem is partisan bickering (like your comment) and complete inaction to change the way things have been done in Washinigton D.C for far too long by BOTH parties.

Choosing sides in a political civil war will be as fruitful as the results of the first days "work" in the House of Representatives. All show, and no valid action.

I about some suggestions on a way to actually facilitate some change instead of all the finger pointing and hate speech? Just a thought.

Posted by: dmcavalier | January 20, 2011 10:55 AM | Report abuse

"...we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty." -JFK

Too bad modern Democrats don't share this view.

Posted by: documentor | January 20, 2011 11:41 AM | Report abuse

@washingtonpost #jfkquotes "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard..."

Posted by: BSPeteMiller | January 20, 2011 12:05 PM | Report abuse

"The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose...and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization."

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | January 20, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

The best line in this speech is,"With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God's work must truly be our own". If we could get today's politician to just pause from feeding at the cash troth of big business and special interests and try to do what's right, just, and merciful we could set an example that the whole world would follow.

Posted by: JAMNEW | January 20, 2011 1:46 PM | Report abuse

What irony:

"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, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge — and more.

. . . To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny."

Tell it to the Vietnamese.

Posted by: lerois | January 20, 2011 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Actually, my favorite "Kennedy" quote isn't by Kennedy, it is by John Wayne about Kennedy.

"I didn't vote for him but he's my president, and I hope he does a good job."

If only this kind of patriotism was more common today.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | January 20, 2011 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Kennedy was a fraud, pure and simple, as I have discussed in an article entitled, "John F. Kennedy: The Most Despicable President In American History."


The problem is that the Kennedy family members and sycophants have been burying the truth since his assassination, and it needs to be told. When he died, his “image” was frozen in time, but the truth is grotesque. To lionize him like his sycophants have done is a crime, and unconscionable.

The latest travesty is Caroline Kennedy's successful distortion of the truth by forcing the History Channel to drop its already-completed min-series about Kennedy and his wife, starring Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear.

Posted by: TimothyDNaegele | January 20, 2011 10:53 PM | Report abuse

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