Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Leader Reid, Leader Pelosi, Members of Congress, reverend clergy, distinguished guests and friends.
Let me begin by noting that as we mark this anniversary we are thrilled to be joined by Caroline Kennedy and her family. Caroline, you carry the memory of your parents with dignity and compassion.
On the night before his inaugural speech was to be delivered, the President-elect was driving through the snowy streets of Washington on his way to one of many inaugural balls he would attend that night when he asked the driver to turn on a light inside the car. He wanted the well-wishers outside to be able to see his wife.
And then, with the light on, he began to read Jefferson’s first inaugural address, which was printed in the program of the concert that he and Mrs. Kennedy had just attended.
And after he had finished, he put it aside, shook his head, and issued the following three-word judgment: “Better than mine.”
Well, the rest of the country would think differently.
His inaugural address would be an instant sensation, and it’s easy to see why. Its opening words, his first as president, were a reminder to the world that on Inauguration Day, Americans do not celebrate the victory of one political party over another. We celebrate freedom.
And in the minutes that followed, he aimed to give purpose and direction to that freedom. He sought to define the age in which he found himself and to enlist the nation in what he called a long twilight struggle against the common enemies of man. He did not say what he would do to arrest these common enemies. Nor did he lay out what sacrifices he expected. But the applause of the crowd suggested that Americans were willing to accept anyway.
The first president born in the 20th century had clearly struck a chord, especially with the young. And many of them are with us here today.
My own family came to America that same year full of hope and optimism about our new country. Just four year after that, we listened attentively as then director of the new Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, gave the commencement address at my father’s graduation from St. John’s University in New York.
And some years later, my father, who is here with me today, would fill with an immigrant’s pride again when his daughter was asked to lead the Peace Corps that President Kennedy had created and that Sarge Shriver had guided and loved.
We note the passing of Sarge Shriver who was such an guiding force for the Peace Corps and extend our sympathies to the Kennedy and Shriver families, in particular to Maria and her brothers.
When I was director, Peace Corps expanded its programs for the first time into countries behind the Iron Curtain, turning into reality what President Kennedy had predicted would happen when he talked about the establishment of the Peace Corps. Even in those days of dreams and optimism, he clearly had no illusions about how hard it would be and how long it would take to see results in the effort to ensure the success of liberty.
He knew the task ahead would be the work of many heads and many hands. And 50 years later, we honor his memory and the memory of his inspiring words by renewing our shared commitment to finish that work, to defeat the common enemies of man. Not in weeks. Not in months. Not even in our own lifetimes perhaps. But determined, nonetheless, to “begin” once more.