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Chris Matthews On John F. Kennedy: New Book Pulls Back Curtain On 'Ask Not' Speech, Nixon Debates And More

Chris Matthews John Kennedy

First Posted: 10/31/11 10:32 AM ET Updated: 10/31/11 10:34 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- A presidential call to service that inspired generations of Main Street Americans originated, ironically, in the privileged world of a New England prep school.

"Ask not what your country can do for you," President John F. Kennedy famously declared in his inaugural address of 1961. "Ask what you can do for your country."

In his new book, "Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero," talk show host and author Chris Matthews presents new evidence that Kennedy had heard that language in chapel exhortations delivered by the headmaster of the Choate School in Connecticut when he was a student there in the 1930s.

Its elitist origins notwithstanding, Matthews writes, Kennedy's call moved millions of Americans to a sense of civic duty and an optimistic view of national mission, both of which seem missing in our own time.

The origin of the lines was in doubt, but Matthews unearthed two documents that would appear to end the discussion. He found the typed chapel-speech notes of the headmaster, George St. John, in which he quoted a Harvard College dean's refrain. "As has often been said," the refrain went, "the youth who loves his Alma Mater will always ask, not 'what can she do for me?' but 'what can I do for her?'"

The other clue was uncovered in a response to a questionnaire about JFK's time at the school, circulated when Kennedy was president. "I boil every time I read or hear the 'Ask not ... etc.' exhortation as being original with Jack," wrote one of his fellow students. "Time and time again we all heard [the headmaster] say that to the whole Choate family."

The "Ask Not" story is one of a series in the book that add new depth and sometimes surprising details to the Kennedy narrative. The author of five previous books, Matthews is a former presidential speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and press secretary for the late Speaker Tip O'Neill. Simon & Schuster will publish his book on Tuesday. (Full disclosure: This reporter is a regular guest on his two shows, "Hardball with Chris Matthews" on MSNBC and the syndicated "Chris Matthews Show.")

Among the other new stories in the book:

  • JFK's interest in politics and public office dated to his early teenage years and not, as commonly supposed, to the period after the death of his heroic older brother, Joe Jr. Jack was, in fact, never reluctant. As a teen, he read Churchill and The New York Times. He ran for student office at Harvard as both a freshman and a sophomore. During World War II, he talked about politics constantly. He planned on attending law school even before his brother's death.
  • Younger brother Robert's role in JFK's campaigns is well-known. But besides his prowess as a manager, Bobby had another job, according to an oral history given by JFK's top lieutenant, Kenneth O'Donnell. Bobby was supposed to keep the Kennedys' meddlesome father, Joe Sr., out of the campaign. Jack had a chilly and distant relationship with the father; Bobby, by contrast, was extremely close to him and effective in holding him off.
  • Matthews reveals more details -- comic but fateful -- about the famously pivotal 1960 televised debates. According to new interviews, the Kennedy team insisted that makeup be prohibited. Richard Nixon followed the rules, with disastrous results. JFK did not. His staff secretly applied powder and told reporters that his ruddy glow was merely a natural tan. After Nixon was seen perspiring badly in the first debate, his staff tried secretly to lower the thermostat in the NBC studios for the second debate. The Kennedy team found out and just as secretly turned the dial back up.
  • Burned by the CIA and military intelligence in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, JFK was wary of top brass from then on. But, according to Matthews, Kennedy concluded that they were dangerously out of touch as a group after an encounter with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the hero of WWII's Pacific theater. The retired general told him that the U.S. Army should and could be equipped with "nuclear side arms" -- a fantastical notion to everyone but MacArthur.
  • Matthews writes that he found an overlooked passage on White House tapes in which Kennedy confesses to his role in the death of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem in a coup that took place in November 1963 -- less than three weeks before Kennedy's own death.
  • Matthews examined the scribbled notes of presidential historian Theodore White, who interviewed first lady Jacqueline Kennedy shortly after her husband's death. According to the notes, Jackie twice told White that JFK's "mother never loved him." It was her way of explaining her husband's voracious ambition and private compulsions. "All men are a combination of bad and good," she told White. In the story he filed, White transposed the order to "good and bad." Jackie apparently didn't complain.

WATCH John F. Kennedy's inaugural address:

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