This Day In History: January 20

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On January 20, 1961, on the newly renovated east front of the United States Capitol, John Fitzgerald Kennedy is inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States.

It was a cold and clear day, and the nation’s capital was covered with a snowfall from the previous night. The ceremony began with a religious invocation and prayers, and then African American opera singer Marian Anderson sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Robert Frost recited his poem “The Gift Outright.” Kennedy was administered the oath of office by Chief Justice Earl Warren.

During his famous inauguration address, Kennedy, the youngest candidate ever elected to the presidency and the country’s first Catholic president, declared that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” and appealed to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1917, Kennedy was the son of Joseph Patrick Kennedy, a wealthy businessman. Both of his grandfathers were politicians, and his father served appointed positions in the Roosevelt administration, most prominently as U.S. ambassador to Britain. Kennedy volunteered to fight in World War II and was decorated for an August 1943 action in which he saved several of his men after the PT torpedo boat he was commanding was sunk in the South Pacific. In 1944, Kennedy’s older brother, Joseph, was killed in a bombing mission over Belgium. Joseph had planned to make a career in politics, and Kennedy, discharged and working as a reporter, decided to enter politics in his place.

He won the Democratic nomination for the 11th Congressional District of Massachusetts, defeated his Republican opponent, and became a U.S. congressman at the age of 29. Twice reelected, he was known in Congress for his foreign policy expertise, often taking a bipartisan stance when it came to issues of national security. In the election of 1952, in which the Republicans won the White House and majorities in Congress, Kennedy captured the Senate seat of Republican Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. after an intensive campaign.

In 1956, he nearly became the running mate of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, winning Kennedy wide national exposure and leading him to consider a bid for the 1960 presidential nomination. In 1957, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of biographical essays, Profiles in Courage, and in 1958, he was reelected to the Senate by the largest margin in Massachusetts history. By that time, Kennedy’s presidential campaign was in full swing.

The press embraced the young, idealistic senator and his glamorous wife, Jackie, and Kennedy’s father bought a 40-passenger aircraft to transport the candidate and his staff around the country. By the time the 1960 Democratic National Convention convened, Kennedy had won seven primary victories. On July 13, he was nominated on the first ballot, and the next day Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson was chosen as his running mate. Opposed by Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Kennedy performed well in televised debates with Nixon, a new addition to presidential politics. On November 8, he was elected president.

Kennedy, his wife, and family seemed fitting representatives of the youthful spirit of America during the early 1960s, and the Kennedy White House was idealized by admirers as a modern-day “Camelot.” In foreign policy, Kennedy actively fought communism in the world, ordering the controversial Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and sending thousands of U.S. military “advisors” to Vietnam. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he displayed firmness and restraint, exercising an unyielding opposition to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba but also demonstrating a level-headedness during negotiations for their removal. On the domestic front, he introduced his “New Frontier” social legislation, calling for a rigorous federal desegregation policy and a sweeping new civil rights bill. On November 22, 1963, after less than three years in office, Kennedy was assassinated while riding in an open-car motorcade with his wife in Dallas, Texas.