Governing Rhetoric

Did JFK borrow his most famous words from Kahlil Gibran?
By Adrienne Raphael

This January, Ted Cruz suggested to a crowd of supporters in New Hampshire that if John F. Kennedy were running today, he would be a Republican. Attempting a Boston accent, Cruz drawled, "As JFK said, 'Some men see things as they are and ask, Why? I see things that never were and ask, why not?' These are the principles that work." In fact, Cruz wasn't quoting JFK at all. The line is most commonly attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, who, in turn, borrowed the phrase from George Bernard Shaw. Nevertheless, it's telling that to give a campaign a rhetorical boost, candidates still turn to JFK.

John F. Kennedy's reputation is indelibly stamped with the most famous line of his 1961 inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." The phrase, which has inspired countless Americans and others around the globe, has a crisp, seemingly effortless ring to it. But the history behind the line itself might be more complicated than it appears.

In 1925, the Lebanese-born poet Kahlil Gibran, author of the enormously popular collection of prose poems The Prophet, wrote an open letter in Arabic to Lebanon's parliament. Though critical reception of Gibran over the years has been mixed—in 1972, the New York Times called him a "candy metaphysician"—Gibran has remained a beloved literary icon, with his poetry remaining a perennial favorite to read at weddings.

Read the full essay on the Poetry Foundation website.