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The Dawn of Camelot: LIFE at JFK’s Inauguration

On the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration, LIFE.com presents a series of pictures from the inauguration of another young president who faced unprecedented challenges, and expectations.

January 20, 1961, was a bitterly cold day in Washington. And yet, as John and Jackie Kennedy set out on foot from the White House to the Capitol for JFK’s inauguration as president, the sense of cheer and confidence was palpable.

This, after all, was the dawn of “Camelot” — the evocative label forever associated with Kennedy’s administration, born of the young president’s fondness for the musical of the same name. LIFE magazine sent several of its best photographers to D.C. to chronicle the inauguration (and its slew of star-studded parties). A week later, the magazine ran nearly 20 pictures from the event; many, many more photos were not published in LIFE. Here, LIFE.com presents the best of those pictures that ran, and many that did not.

In his inaugural address — one of the most memorable in history — Kennedy did not skirt the very real, very present danger posed by mutual mistrust and enmity between East and West at the height of the Cold War, nor did he accept that danger as a fixed, immutable state of affairs.

“If a beachhead of cooperation,” he said, “may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides [America and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its satellites] join in creating a new endeavor — not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved. This will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

“To those nations who would make themselves our adversary,” Kennedy said, “we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.”

Perhaps the most heartfelt words uttered that day, meanwhile, came not from JFK, but from the 87-year-old poet Robert Frost. A four-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the quintessential New England bard (albeit born in California), Frost penned a new poem for the inauguration, but the intense glare of the January sun made it impossible for him to read his own manuscript. After struggling for a bit, and after Lyndon Johnson stood and tried to help (using his own top hat to shield the page), Frost abandoned the effort and instead recited, from memory, a famous, earlier poem: “The Gift Outright,” written nearly 20 years before, which reads in part, “we gave ourselves outright … To the land vaguely realizing westward.”

It seemed then, and still feels, an appropriately optimistic sentiment in the early days of the 1960s.

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