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.
WATCH John F. Kennedy's inaugural address: