Remarks at the 50th Anniversary of John F. Kennedy's Inauguration
Barack Obama, President of the United States
January 20, 2011
The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
Thank you so much, everybody. Thank you. Thank you. To Caroline and the Kennedy family, to all the members of Congress and distinguished guests here tonight, it is an extraordinary pleasure to join you to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. (Applause.) And I can’t think of a better place to do it than here, in a living memorial that reflects not only his love of the arts, but also his recognition of how the arts can help sustain our national strength. (Applause.)
Now, we mark this anniversary with a measure of sadness, as we remember the extraordinary life of Sargent Shriver -- (applause) -- a man who embodied the spirit of the New Frontier as well as anybody. When a person passes away, there’s often an urge to define their legacy, and find a way in which it will endure. In the case of Sarge, that is not hard to do. His legacy is written in the villages around the world that have clean water or a new school through the Peace Corps. It’s written into the lives of all the children in our own country whose fortunes have been lifted through Head Start. And it will endure in the work of his children who are living out his legacy of service, and our thoughts and prayers are with them tonight.
One of the remarkable aspects in commemorating the JFK inauguration, in remembering those who were part of his team, like Sargent Shriver, who would help bring Kennedy’s soaring vision to life, is that none of it feels dated. Even now, one half century later, there is something about that day -– January 20, 1961 -– that feels immediate, feels new and urgent and exciting, despite the graininess of the 16-millimeter news reels that recorded it for posterity.
There he is, the handsome Bostonian, summoning a generation to service and a nation to greatness, in a speech that would become part of the American canon. And there’s the crowd, bundled up for the cold, making their way through streets white with snow, full of expectation. A nation, feeling young again, its mood brightened by the promise of a new decade.
Now, I confess, I don’t have my own memories of that day. (Laughter.) I wasn’t born until later that year. (Laughter.) What I know of that day and the 1,000 days that followed -– what I know of President Kennedy –- came from a mother and grandparents who adored him; from books I read and classes I took; from growing up in a country still mourning its beloved leader, whose name was spoken with reverence. And I know him through the legacy of his children and his brother Teddy who became extraordinarily dear friends of mine.
But I know him, John F. Kennedy, less as a man than as an icon, as a larger-than-life figure who graced this Earth for one brief and shining moment. But part of the function of this event, on this day, we must remember him as he was -- as a father who loved his children, as a friend who lived life fully, as a noble public servant who wanted to make a difference.
A quick wit with a light touch, he was dealt, in many ways, a fortunate hand at birth. Attending one event, early in his career, where every speaker before him pompously claimed humble roots -- things haven’t changed that much -- (laughter) -- John Kennedy confessed, when he took the podium, that he was –- and I quote -– “the only fellow here who didn’t come up the hard way.” (Laughter.)