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Ask Not

Ask not penguin
Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America (Penguin, 2012)
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“[Ask Not] has the happy effect of bringing quite fully to life that brief, hopeful hour in our nation’s history…”
Washington Post


A narrative of Kennedy’s quest to create a speech that would distill American dreams and empower a new generation, Ask Not is a beautifully detailed account of the inauguration and the weeks preceding it.

More reviews and excerpt below
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During a time when America was divided, and its citizens torn by fears of war, John F. Kennedy took office and sought to do more than just reassure the American people. His speech marked the start of a brief, optimistic era.

Thurston Clarke’s portrait of JFK is balanced, revealing the president at his most dazzlingly charismatic and cunningly pragmatic.

More Reviews of Ask Not

“Insightful and fascinating… [Kennedy] comes off as a skilled, eloquent, and inspired craftsman.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Earnestly exuberant… Ask Not is a short book, but there are many berries on the bush…Clarke is an intrepid researcher.”
—Louis Menand in The New Yorker

“Part of the fun of this book is that Clarke writes good gossip…This is an entertaining and instructive book.”
The Press-Republican (Plattsburgh)

Ask Not is an elegant and literate celebration of one of the past century’s pinnacles of literacy—and a valuable addition to the Kennedy canon.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Thurston Clarke has taken a brief, beautiful speech and re-created an extraordinary moment in time. He understands the power of words, the way they can animate an age and move the world.”
Evan Thomas, coauthor of The Wise Men, author of John Paul Jones

“This fine book is part textual criticism, part archival detective work, but most important, a compelling and fascinating story… Clarke has reminded us once again that there was substance behind the charisma, and much to admire about John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
The Herald-Sun (Durham)

“Insightful and engaging… In the end, Sorensen stands revealed as what he’s always claimed to be: not Kennedy’s ghostwriter, but his scribe. And Kennedy? He comes off as original and eloquent.”
The Providence Sunday Journal

“A spirited narrative…fine social history.”
Library Journal

Ask Not stirs us again with the eloquence of Kennedy’s oratory, and deepens our understanding of its place in history.”
—Sally Bedell Smith, author of Grace and Power

“JFK’s inaugural has gotten the book it deserves from an author who is himself a master of words. Anyone who wants to understand why this president changed all our our lives need only open these pages to see him at his finest during his finest, most captivating, and memorable moments.”
—Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution, author of The Russia Hand


On a low curving wall in Arlington National Cemetery seven sentences from the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy are chiseled into granite tablets below the slain president’s grave. The granite, known as Deer Island after the place in Maine where it was quarried, has a pinkish tinge that becomes brighter when worn. It also covers the pavement in front of the wall where the feet of 150 million visitors have turned it pinker every year. The tablets, too, are changing color, but more slowly, as mourners slide their fingers across the three-inch letters, the closest they can come to touching the man who is buried here.

Jackie and Mamie rode from the White House to the Capitol in a Cadillac limousine together with Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire. It was a moment neither woman could have anticipated with much pleasure, but here they were: Mamie in a gaudy “tomato red” suit, matching hat, and bulky mink, Jackie in Cassini’s fawn coat trimmed with a whisper of sable; Mamie, who had shared a bed with her husband during forty-five years of marriage, and Jackie, who did not plan on sharing the same bedroom with her husband on their first night in the White House; Mamie, who had spent most of her White House evenings sitting next to her husband as they ate their supper off trays perched in front of his-and-hers televisions, and Jackie, who would fill her husband’s evenings with intimate dinner parties and concerts; Mamie, the daughter of an Iowa meatpacker who had never attended college and loved canasta and mahjong, and Jackie, the daughter of a philandering, alcoholic New York stockbroker, who had attended Vassar and the Sorbonne and been named Debutante of the Year. Here they were, then, two women riding together to the Capitol who, because neither suspected the infidelities the other had endured in her marriage, believed they had nothing in common.

As Jackie descended the Capitol steps, the crowd rose to its feet, cheering and applauding. Cassini sensed victory. Her fawn coat, with its understated sable collar, matching pillbox hat, and small sable muff, communicated youth, simplicity, and elegance. She was the gorgeous petal in a dowdy bouquet of fur. He had promised she would stand out but was still astonished when it happened exactly that way. He sensed he was witnessing a turning point in fashion history—the celebretization of fashion, and the iconization of Jackie Kennedy—and once her husband began speaking, he realized that her outfit perfectly complemented his spare and elegant prose.

He had not just dictated, but had lived the words. They told his story, ‘born in this century,’ ‘tempered by war,’ and ‘disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.’ As he delivered them, he became more emphatic and passionate, turning his right hand into a fist and pumping it up and down as he said, ‘The torch has been passed.’ It was here that his nervous energy, heightened by the delays and prayers, began surfacing in his delivery, and he began forging an emotional bond with the audience. Those appropriating the words and themes of Kennedy’s address have failed to appreciate that the text was only part of the magic. There was also an extraordinary convergence of people, events, and history. There was the snowstorm, Jackie’s wardrobe, Frost’s recitation, and an audience already longing for his words. There was a man who left nothing to chance—not his tan, his haircut, or teeth, not even the cut of his suit, or the seating of dignitaries on his platform—and who spoke with the urgency of someone who has narrowly escaped death and cared passionately about the judgment of history. There was a speech he had not only composed but lived; one that was a distillation of the spiritual and philosophical principles forming his character and guiding his life, and that he delivered with a passion that reached deeply buried hearts and elicited from the American people, as Gore Vidal had predicted, ‘a remarkable emotional response.’

Pearl Harbor Ghosts

Pearl Harbor Ghosts: The Legacy of December 7, 1941 (Ballantine, 2001)
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“Clarke’s ability to evoke the feel and mood of Hawaii then and now will remind readers of Jan Morris and Joan Didion.”

The Washington Post


A landmark book published to rave reviews a decade ago, Pearl Harbor Ghosts has now been updated to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the surprise attack that forever changed the course of history.

More Reviews below
Excerpt below

Book on Television: Pearl Harbor Ghosts was the basis for a two-hour prime time CBS documentary introduced by General Normal Schwartzkopf.

Full of gripping drama and vibrant details, here is the intimate human story of the events surrounding that fateful day of December 7, 1941–the glamorous tropical city that seemed too beautiful to suffer devastation . . . the stunned naval personnel whose lives would permanently be divided into before and after Pearl Harbor . . . the ordinary Honolulu residents who were tragically unprepared to be the first target in the Pacific war . . . the Japanese pilots who manned the squadron of deadly silver bombers . . . and the island’s community of Japanese-Americans whose lives would never be the same again.

Blending meticulous historic recreation with lively reporting, Clarke counterpoints the freeze-frame nightmare of the 1941 bombing with the disturbing realities of present-day Honolulu, where hundreds of veterans, both American and Japanese, converge each year to relive every hour of the attack. Wealthy Waikiki landowners and native Hawaiian farmers, admirals and nurses, Navy wives and government officials–all take their part in Clarke’s rich tapestry of memory and insight. In the end, Pearl Harbor emerges as a trauma that spread from Oahu to engulf the nation and the world–an event that continues to reverberate in the lives of all who experienced it.

More reviews of Pearl Harbor Ghosts

“Filled with fascinating stories told by ordinary people who lived through the extraordinary weekend of December 5 to 7, 1941.”

The New York Times Book Review

“An extremely sensitive book by a sensitive writer.”

Christian Science Monitor

“Thurston Clarke’s Pearl Harbor Ghosts stands apart from other 50th anniversary examinations of that tragic day.”

Chicago Tribune

“A penetrating and provocative study of the attack’s evolving impact on Japanese-American relations and on Hawaii itself over the past half-century. It is distinctly the most illuminating volume among the wave of books being launched…to coincide with the impending 50th anniversary.”

Chicago Sun-Times

“Unforgettable… Clarke is masterful in the personal realities… Woven into the dreamlike tapestry are sharp, provocative bits on contemporary Japanese-US realities… Powerful, compelling prose lays this ghost to rest with dignity and painstaking honesty.”



In 1941, Honolulu was a city where people advertised for a ‘Hawaiian yard boy who can sing, dance, and play the guitar,’ and taxi drivers used call boxes attached to palm trees, and you requested a favorite driver by name. It was a city where a siren ordered minors off the streets at eight o’clock, beachboys had names like Hankshaw, Steamboat, Panama, and Tough Bill, who played the ukulele and tucked hibiscus blossoms behind their ears, policemen wore leis and sat on high stools under umbrellas, waving at friends as they pulled ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ levers, and Pete the ‘Hula Cop’ directed traffic with the arm motions of a hula dancer, and was honored by a downtown plaque thanking him for having ‘smiled his way into the hearts of the people.’ It was a city where the most serious civic nuisances were an absence of shade trees along Kalakaua Avenue and bad-mannered children on the trolley buses, politicians wore white suits and panama hats, and promised the moon in several languages, and hostesses descended from early missionaries used ti leaves as tablecloths and sang the doxology before dinner.

Trace the paths of the Japanese fighters and bombers over a map of Oahu and the island begins to resemble an insect caught in a dense spiderweb of lines and arrows, and you can appreciate how confusing the attack must have been for American forces on the ground. The most chaotic and damaging period was the first half hour, from 0755 until 0825, when more than twenty ships were attacked by 183 Japanese fighters and torpedo, dive-, and high bombers. This was when Oahu’s defenders suffered the heaviest material losses and casualties, when great battleships capsized and sank in flames and Japanese pilots destroyed or damaged most of the 188 Army and Navy planes lost on December 7.

On the night of December 7, the first night of a blackout and curfew that would last almost three years, civilians saw shells flashing like sheet lightning, and the dull red glow of burning battleships, projected onto the night sky. At midnight, they saw a rare lunar rainbow, which native Hawaiians believe symbolizes an imminent victory. All night, they felt the ground shaking from trucks trailering artillery pieces, and heard the rifle shots of nervous guards, the antiaircraft fire of panicky gunners, and the grinding gears of mortuary wagons transporting the dead to cemeteries in Nuuanu Valley.