Letters: CEO Salaries, the 1906 Quake, JFK

Listeners comment on ballooning CEO salaries and the devastating 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Also, author Thurston Clarke sheds light on the mysterious origins of John F. Kennedy's memorable quote: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

It's Tuesday and time for your e-mails.

Last week we talked about ballooning CEO salaries. Some of the highest paid corporate executives made over a hundred million dollars last year. Wade Noy, of Anchorage, Alaska, took issue with that.

“What seems to really be the issue here is what is valued in a company,” he wrote. “When a company pays its CEO $17 million and pays employees minimum wage, the message is that one person is more valuable. As an employee, I would feel pretty affronted by those numbers.”

Brent Alverd, in Provo, Utah, thinks something's missing from that equation.

“Executive compensation should be a function of only contribution to the corporation,” he wrote. “Basic economics theory states that high risk should be rewarded by high reward. With current Sarbanes Oxley legislation and rules, top executives have an extreme amount of risk in their (unintelligible) shareholders et cetera. This risk must be rewarded.”

Last week we also marked the 100th anniversary of the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire with a special broadcast from San Francisco. Our conversation stirred memories for Barbara Gibson in Emerald Hills, California.

“My grandfather was eight years old and living in Haight-Ashbury during the 1906 earthquake,” she wrote. “He said the buildings remained intact but the chimneys crumbled and the gas service was disrupted. His family and their neighbors dragged their stoves out into the street and cooked over wood for the next few days. He remembered watching the tent city grow up in the panhandle of Golden Gate Park, and said that for an eight-year-old boy it was all a big adventure. I treasure these first-hand accounts both from my family legacy and others too.”

Yesterday we revisited the speeches of John F. Kennedy. For listener Jamie Keener, it was a fresh experience.

“I'm young, 22, and I've never heard those speeches before. The thing that struck me the most was the profound sense of patriotism that I felt as I heard them. I never had this experience before. The speeches I've heard in my lifetime only left me with a deep sense of nothing, because of the bickering and backstabbing that was going on behind the scenes.”

That program also sparked a flurry of e-mails on the origins of Kennedy's famous words from his inaugural address in 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” One listener attributed those words to the headmaster at Kennedy's Prep School, Choate, another, to the poet Khalil Gabron. Our own research brought up references to Cicero, King George VI, Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding.

Thurston Clarke is the author of ASK NOT: THE INAUGURATION OF JOHN F. KENNEDY AND THE SPEECH THAT CHANGED AMERICA and he joins us now from his home in upstate New York. Nice to talk to you again.

Mr. THURSTON CLARKE (Author of ASK NOT): Nice to be back.

CONAN: What do we know about the origins of that phrase?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, there are at least a half dozen origins. I think Kennedy came up with it himself. I mean, the idea behind ask not, that you had a, a citizen had a duty to sacrifice, to do something for their country, is hardly a new idea. I mean, indeed, Warren Harding and Oliver Wendell Holmes had all made similar statements. But the phrasing was Kennedy's.

And also, the important thing to remember is that the man who says something is what makes it so meaningful. There's Ted Sorensen once, talking about Kennedy, quoted something that was said about William Pitt and that was it's not merely the thing that is said, but the man who says it that counts, the character that breathes through the sentences.

CONAN: Ted Sorensen, of course, was Kennedy's speechwriter.

Mr. CLARKE: Speechwriter. And, in this case, the man who breathed through these sentences, who was asking Americans to ask not what they could do for their country, they knew that he was someone who had fought in World War II, who had lost a brother in World War II, who had himself, you know, practiced what he was preaching.

The other thing I'd say is that there's absolutely no evidence that Kennedy had read Oliver Wendell Holmes or Harding, these particular passages.

CONAN: I'm not sure anybody's ever read Warren Harding.

Mr. CLARKE: No. And Kennedy kept a daybook where he put down quotations that he memorized and that he used. Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and, who was also a Kennedy aide, had access to this daybook when he wrote his memoir of the Kennedy administration and the only kind of reference that was similar to ask not that he could find was one that Kennedy had noted in 1945, from the French philosopher Rousseau.

Rousseau had said, “As soon as any man says of the affairs of state, ‘What does it matter to me,' the state may be given up as lost.” Which is a bit of a stretch from ask not, but that's all that Schlesinger could find in Kennedy's book of quotations.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for that.

Mr. CLARKE: Sure.

CONAN: Thurston Clarke is the author of ASK NOT: THE INAUGURATION OF JOHN F. KENNEDY AND THE SPEECH THAT CHANGED AMERICA and he joined us from his home in upstate New York.

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