Magazine Feature / People

Law professor emeritus recalls JFK inauguration

Looking back at Jan. 20, 1961, John Carver knew he had a good seat for a great speech. He didn’t realize he was a witness to history.

Carver, professor emeritus at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, has seen a lot in his 90 years. But as president-elect Barack Obama prepares to take the Oval Office, Carver has been recalling that one particularly freezing cold day when he was took his place on the stage as John F. Kennedy gave his now-famous inauguration speech.

As Kennedy urged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” Carver was just a few feet away as the newly named assistant secretary of the interior for the incoming Kennedy administration.

“It’s hard to separate what you know now from what you knew then, but we knew then — as we know now — there was something pretty special about this candidate, John F. Kennedy, how he captured the crowds,” Carver says. “I heard the speech as everybody else did. Whether I knew that we’d be talking about it 50 years later, I doubt. But I knew it was more than just a passing speech.”

Account of history

Carver, who earned a law degree from Georgetown University in 1947, had worked in private practice and served as assistant attorney general for the state of Idaho and as an administrative assistant to U.S. Sen. Frank Church of Idaho before he was recruited to head the Kennedy campaign in Michigan.

“They asked me what I knew about Michigan. I told them nothing,” Carver recalls. “They said, ‘You’re perfect.’ They didn’t want any problems in what was a very divided party at the time.”

Carver recalls his time in the campaign and the busy days leading up to the post-election transition from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Kennedy in a video produced with law Professor Don Smith. Carver and Smith have been working on a series of video presentations, uploaded to the Internet, that offers a first-person account of history.

“After that long [election] night when we were waiting on results from Michigan and Illinois to come in, and Kennedy had his squeaky, squeaky victory, it wasn’t but a few days after that there was a transition from campaign mode to transition mode,” Carver says on the video. “A sudden realization hit everyone that now that he was elected, he had to do something to get prepared for running the country.”

A ‘great transition’

Carver says there may be some similarities between Kennedy’s election and the election of Barack Obama. Both represent times of great transition. And in both cases, Carver says there is a national sense of anticipation and great expectation.

But the transition itself, he says, is likely very different. Back in 1960 and 1961, things were less formal. Background checks weren’t as strict and political jobs appointments were handled on a personal basis, with jobs assembled in what was called the “Plum Book.” Today’s transition team likely has to deal with many, many more positions and many times the number of applicants, all facing strict and lengthy vetting.

An historic day

Carver recalls the 1961 transition vividly, rattling off the names of those considered for key posts in the new administration. And he remembers renting a tuxedo for the inaugural ball the night before the big day, only to be shut in, unable to attend, by a howling surprise snowstorm that paralyzed the city. As for inauguration day, Carver sat on the stage behind the president, enduring a dreadfully long benediction, watching poet laureate Robert Frost fumble with his papers in a bitter cold wind, and then, Kennedy’s speech.

“I remember it was a moving, inspiring kind of thing,” Carver says in his video recollection. “He was there with his hat off, and the sun was shining brightly. It just seemed like we were off to a great start.”

Eventually, Carver ended up as assistant secretary of the interior for public land management. In 1965, under President Johnson, he was promoted to under secretary of the interior, and in 1966 he accepted a post as commissioner on the Federal Power Commission, where he served until 1972, leaving to teach at the University of Denver.
His papers are now part of the collection at the John F. Kennedy museum in Boston.

A video of Professor Emeritus John A. Carver is online.

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