The inaugural ceremony is a defining moment in a President’s career, and no one knew this better than John F. Kennedy as he prepared for his own inauguration on January 20, 1961. He wanted his address to be short and clear—devoid of any partisan rhetoric and focused on foreign policy. He began constructing the speech in late November, working with friends and advisers. While his colleagues submitted ideas, the speech was distinctly the work of Kennedy himself. Aides recount that every sentence was worked, reworked, and reduced. It was a meticulously crafted piece of oratory that dramatically announced a generational change in the White House and called on the nation to combat “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

Kennedy wrote his thoughts in his nearly indecipherable longhand on a yellow legal pad. The climax of the speech and its most memorable phrase, “Ask not what your country can
do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” was honed down from a thought about sacrifice that Kennedy had long held in his mind and had expressed in various ways in campaign speeches.

(Information excerpted from Stacey Bredhoff, American Originals [Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 2001], p. 108–109.)