01/13/2009 - On the snow-laden morning of January 21, 1961, John F. Kennedy asked the American people to stiffen their upper lips and tighten their belts. "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country," the new president intoned. His call to sacrifice earned near-universal praise.
"The reaction to President Kennedy's inaugural speech was even more remarkable than the speech itself. Everybody praised it…." wrote New York Times columnist James Reston. "A president of spirit attuned to our times," judged the Pittsburgh Press. "About as good a start as a President of the United States could make…. We doubt that any peacetime president has ever begun by engaging the people so sternly to their duties, opined the Los Angeles Times.
The reaction abroad was no less effusive. The address "demands efforts and sacrifices without shying away from mentioning the dangers and goals of the future," applauded the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "It was the word of a courageous man speaking to a courageous people," marveled the Corriere Della Sera in Milan, Italy.
As for the American people, to whom the directive to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship," was directed, they seemed unfazed by the injunction. In a Gallup poll conducted shortly before the inauguration, nearly 70% expressed approval of Kennedy's dealing with problems subsequent to his November election. Once in office, the new president's approval rating continued to climb, peaking at 83% in the spring of 1961 and remaining in the high 70s or at 80% over the following year.
Read the full commentary Ask Not... on the Pew Research Center's Web site