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JFK's Voice At Age 20

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So today is John F. Kennedy's birthday. He would have been 100 years old. And to commemorate his centennial, Harvard University has released what it believes is the very first recording of the future president's voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: My name is John F. Kennedy. I'm going to speak this morning in a subject we've spoken of before.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

JFK was a 20-year-old sophomore at Harvard when he made that recording in 1937.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: The first moment we heard it, I think we all sort of quietly gasped.

INSKEEP: That's Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, the head of archives for Harvard University, who spoke with us over Skype.

SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: When Kennedy was a student at Harvard, there was a professor whose goal was to record each student as part of a class to help them improve their public speaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: We all know the circumstances surrounding Mr. Black's appointment to the Supreme Court.

GREENE: Kennedy was working on a speech about Hugo Black, who President Franklin Roosevelt nominated to the Supreme Court to great controversy.

SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: There had been rumors that Hugo Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and Kennedy chose to reflect on that particular appointment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: Whether Mr. Black's appointment is a correct one is hard to say. It was evidently done in the heat of presidential anger at the conservative elements who did not back Mr. Roosevelt's plan.

SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: It just jumped out at us as we were listening to it that it was quite forceful. And it was quite thoughtful.

INSKEEP: And an amazingly familiar cadence to us today, but it appears that Kennedy's professor at the time was not so impressed, certainly not as impressed as the head archivist at Harvard is.

SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: He got the sort of average grade that people got in the class. There weren't too many A's. There were lots of B's and C's. And actually, Kennedy was kind of in the middle like everybody else.

GREENE: That is amazing. Well, of course, in later years, Kennedy became known as a quite compelling speaker, delivering one of the most memorable inaugural addresses. At age 20, he was still finding his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN IN THE 50'S")

THE POLICE: (Singing) We were born, born in the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.