[cross posted at E Pluribus Unum]
Most inaugural addresses have a pretty short shelf life. They don't endure past the first few days after they are delivered. Honestly, can you remember anything from the inaugural addresses of the last five presidents?
[Note: you get bonus points if you can, you know, name the last five presidents.]
Fact is, there really are only a handful of addresses that have endured through the decades of American history. Lincoln's second address ("With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds..."), FDR's first ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself") come to mind.
If you can think of any others, feel free to leave a comment to that effect.
On the other hand, if you want an inaugural address that is as inspiring today as it was the day it was delivered, if you want one that is compelling from start to finish, JFK's address in January of 1961 is at the top of the list.
You think you remember it, right? "Ask not what your country can do for you..." But there is so much more to it than that.
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.
Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need -- not as a call to battle, though embattled we are -- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation," a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. 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.
I'm old enough to remember watching that address (I remember most vividly the TV pictures of the dazzling sunlight reflecting off the snow covered streets of Washington). Looking back on it now as an adult, I'm struck by the timeless quality of the message and the vigor of the young president in delivering it.
Watch the whole thing (it's barely 15 minutes long) and read the text, too. It's worth your time.
Here's the transcript. Read it. You'll be glad you did.