The Genesis of JFK's "Ask Not" Line

I'd like to discuss words that matter. Just a very few words, if you count them -- a very short speech if you time it. Let's listen to them now, now on the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration:

"And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

I'm working on a book on Jack Kennedy for Simon & Schuster and I've come across an interesting document that hints at the origin of that historic phrase.

Jack Kennedy attended Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut. It's now Choate-Rosemary Hall. The headmaster in Kennedy's time was George St. John. The first page of his notebook contains a portion of an essay by Dean Lebaron Briggs who was St. John's dean at Harvard. Let me read the last lines of that essay which St. John used for his chapel sermons:

As has often been said, the youth who loves his Alma Mater will always ask not "What can she do for me?" but "What can I do for her."

I also have a letter to the school written twenty five years ago complaining to the school that Kennedy had "plagiarized" the headmaster's "Ask Not" phrase -- an absurd complaint I think. Students are supposed to remember what their teachers tell them.

People joined the military, the special forces, the Apollo program. Most of all, they joined the Peace Corps.

I spent two years in that outfit, two years that may not have changed the small business men of Swaziland when I worked with, but certainly changed this young American. Service involves work, but not necessarily sacrifice. In my case it was one wild, never-to-be-forgotten adventure. I spent days on my Suzuki 120 riding the hills of a beautiful country of highlands and bushveld and rural Africa. I got to work with good people who were incredibly kind to me, a foreigner out there by myself. Sargent Shriver, who just died, had much to do with taking his brother-in-law's words and turning them into an exciting organization.

I remember a moment that brought the magic of Kennedy altogether. A fellow Peace Corps guy, Steve Hank, now a professor at the University of New Orleans, sat on a hillside with the people from his village. He was working in community development. It was nighttime -- the month was July 1969 -- as he sat with his Swazi neighbors he pointed to the white blur darting across the sky. He explained it was his fellow Americans, their fellow humans -- heading toward the Moon. That was the wild, exciting legacy of a man who asked Americans to think big of what they could do for their country.

Tonight we honor a half century of that legacy.

Chris Matthews will be on The Colbert Report tonight to discuss his forthcoming book on President Kennedy.