Biographies & Memoirs

The Birth of Camelot

On 20 January 1961, despite deep snow and plunging temperatures, as many as 20,000 people converged on Capitol Hill in Washington, all eager to bear witness to history in the making – the inauguration of the 35th President of the United States.

To all those huddled against the biting cold, and many millions besides, John Fitzgerald Kennedy represented all that was new and exciting about their country. JFK and Jackie – who had given birth to the couple’s first son, John Jr, just two months previously – brought a youthful glamour, refinement, and culture to a White House that had become dull under the grandfatherly President Eisenhower. So strong was this mythic sense of national well-being that his time in office would later become known as the American Camelot.

Indeed, with this enormous weight of expectation bearing down heavily on his shoulders, it would have been understandable if Kennedy had faltered on this, the most important day of his life. But instead, after solemnly swearing the Oath of Office, he stepped up to the podium and delivered one of the most inspiring speeches in US political history.

President Kennedy taking the Oath of Office, 20 January 1961

Co-written with his long-time collaborator, Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s inaugural address, delivered in his trademark Bostonian drawl, was a masterpiece in soaring rhetoric:

‘Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans […] Let every nation know […] 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.’

But amid the optimism and ceremony on that bitter cold January day in 1961, neither Kennedy nor the US people could have known just how soon these lofty ideals would be put to the test.

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