JFK's 'ask not' line traced back to prep school

NEW YORK Tue Nov 1, 2011 6:48pm EDT

NEW YORK Nov 1 (Reuters) - John F. Kennedy's most famous turn of phrase was inspired by the headmaster of his New England prep school, according to a new book on America's only president to have won the Pulitzer Prize.

In his 14-minute 1961 inaugural speech, which addressed the United States' role in the Cold War, Kennedy told Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

Kennedy, it turns out, had heard something like it before.

Two documents unearthed by MSNBC television host Chris Matthews in his book "Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero," show that the future president's headmaster at the elite Choate boarding school in Connecticut in the early 1930s had used a similar exhortation.

"The youth who loves his alma matter will always ask not 'What can she do for me?' but 'What can I do for her?" the headmaster said, quoting a Harvard University dean.

The book says that Kennedy, who was nearly expelled from Choate for his rebellious hijinks, boosted his 1960 presidential bid with small but well-timed moves.

For instance, ahead of a televised presidential debate between Kennedy and then vice president Richard Nixon, both candidates agreed not to use makeup.

But at the last minute, unbeknownst to his opponent, Kennedy applied a thin layer of makeup, Matthews' book says.

Kennedy's 1957 Pulitzer Prize for "Profiles of Courage," a credential that helped bolster his prestige as a candidate, was "no happy accident," the book says.

In fact, Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy, had lobbied members of the Pulitzer screening board one at a time.

Kennedy was assassinated less than three years after taking office. The book is being published this week by Simon and Schuster. (Editing by Mark Egan and Xavier Briand)

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