From the first moments of his presidency, John F. Kennedy evoked a strong sense of security and spirit of idealism in the American public. He reassured the citizens of their nation’s strengths, and by declaring one of history’s most famous questions, inspired them to better serve their country. The charismatic, young president dazzled the world not only with his physical poise and eloquence, but also with his simple, yet intense, use of rhetoric and voice. Identified by a fervent delivery, Kennedy’s distinct style and appeal as a leader progressed throughout his short career as a public speaker and elected official.
His speeches, though mostly composed by Ted Sorensen, adequately conveyed Kennedy’s sincere convictions, poetic influences and directly reflected his intellectual pragmatism towards politics. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, into an innovative and politically oriented family. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a Harvard graduate and ambassador to Great Britain during Roosevelt’s administration, while his grandfather had twice been the mayor of Boston.
Descended of Irish Catholic heritage, the Kennedys came from less than humble beginnings, but Joseph was a dedicated man who had a driving ambition to succeed. His father’s financial accomplishments enabled Kennedy to obtain a superior education and considerable advantage in life. As a young boy, he was an avid reader of history and poetry with a photographic memory, yet he spent only one year at Canterbury, a Catholic institution in Connecticut, before transferring to the prestigious Choate Academy, which he also disliked.
These schools provided Kennedy with no intellectual excitement, and he finished with a ranking only slightly above the middle of his class (Schlesinger, 81). Later, he studied at Harvard, and was an active student who participated in football, swimming, wrote for the Crimson, and aptly concentrated his studies in the field of government. After graduating cum laude at Harvard, Kennedy was faced with the problem of choosing a career. He worked for several months as a reporter for the Hearst newspapers until he ultimately decided to return to Boston and concentrate on politics.
Kennedy viewed government as an honorable profession – one that could place a party or man in the position to make changes for the better (Salinger, 65). At the time, Kennedy was viewed as a man who did not enjoy public speaking and needed much improvement, but he was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives and then to the U. S. Senate. Then problems with his back caused Kennedy to undergo several surgeries. During his extensive convalescence he occupied himself by composing a study of noteworthy political acts of bravery by eight United States Senators (Summers).
Profiles in Courage received the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957, and, in turn, served as a main source for the material in many of Kennedy’s subsequent speeches as a politician. Four years after nearly receiving a Democratic nomination for Vice President, Kennedy began his campaign for the presidency in 1960. As his career progressively grew broader and more successful, so did his abilities as a public speaker. He traveled across the country, speaking on a hundred platforms or at airports, memorials and auditoriums.
Kennedy began to develop with emphasis a distinctive style, identity and appeal, and with “his voice twanging and rapid, his sentences punctuated by the staccato movement of the outthrust arm and the pointed finger, his argument so intent the flow of his discourse often smothered the bursts of applause,” he defined the issues and charmed millions (Schlesinger, 68). Despite minor criticisms pertaining to his projection, speed and word pronunciations, Kennedy, who took voice lessons early on in his campaign, managed to construct an accepted delivery and public identity.
He was effective, in part, because he understood the power of words. He never used them slackly, but instead he was meticulous and used them self-consciously (Fairlie, 39). While speaking, Kennedy’s voice seethed with energy and hurried enthusiasm, a device that better kept his audience’s attention. Although he no longer had time to do much of his own writing, Kennedy was a talented and confident improviser who often deterred from or abandoned his ready manuscript. As for the manuscripts themselves, he usually assisted in preparing them with his principle speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen.
Together, they were an impeccable team. Kennedy was helpful in providing insight from his general readings, and often he acted as outliner, editor and sometimes creator of the phrases and text used in the body. Kennedy also had a production staff for each speech, consisting of additional writers, stenographers, researchers and literary advice men, yet Sorensen was the one who always knew concisely what Kennedy wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.
He even was aware of Kennedy’s pattern of speaking, i. e. ere he would pause for a breath or for emphasis, and could incorporate it brilliantly into the dialogue (pbs. org). Sorensen did all of his writing long handed on yellow legal pads, and could always find the perfect classical reference to bring a critical point into focus (Salinger, 66). In his writing, he often included alliterations, internal rhymes and parallelisms, such as: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind,” and “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate (Fairlie, 86).
Sorensen ‘s main strength laid in his capability to blend a substantial clarity with triteness and persuasion. In one of the most nationalistic campaigns in history, John F. Kennedy was elected the 33rd President of the United States. His firm declaration of convictions at the Houston Ministerial Association, and apparent triumph over candidate Richard Nixon in the great Kennedy-Nixon Debates exhibited Kennedy as a crisp, good looking, self-confident, and authoritative opponent with a smooth fact-filled delivery that made him seem knowledgeable (Parmet, 45).
Though only winning by a narrow margin of the popular vote, he embarked on a mission to restore patriotism in the hearts of the people and to give America a new hope to move forward. Kennedy’s inaugural address has been praised as one of the best public speeches ever. What is most notable about this speech is the fact that it was essentially Kennedy’s own creation. His skilled use of language and establishment of logos, ethos and pathos was especially effective in acquiring an enthused reaction from the public (pbs. org).
While beginning preparations some four weeks before the speech, Kennedy had explicit instructions in mind: keep it short, focused on foreign affairs, and set the tone for a new era. He also wanted to avoid making partisan or pessimistic statements and attacks on previous administrations (Fairlie, 98). A list of Biblical quotes from Billy Graham was compiled for Kennedy, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was studied for secrets of its success. Sorensen concluded that Lincoln achieved the prosaic rhythm of his speech by the quick repetition of one-syllable words.
As a result, 71 percent of Kennedy’s discussion was composed of monosyllabic words (pbs. org). The climax of the speech and its most famous “Ask Not” phrase was supposedly derived from a similar statement made by his former headmaster at Choate and expressed in various ways throughout his prior campaign speeches (pbs. org). Throughout his administration, John F. Kennedy compelled the United States with his vigor, appearance, use of language and style. Though he did not author his manuscripts completely, Kennedy was adept in the language and controlled their content.
He insisted on actively participated in the speechwriting process. As an orator, he had a distinct quality that helped broaden his appeal and further his vision of a world dedicated to the revolution of individual rights. He is considered a natural president, as other men are natural athletes or scientists or artists (Schlesinger, 676). It is also interesting to note that Kennedy has frequently been compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was endlessly curious about him and often demanded Roosevelt quotations for his speeches.
Both were naval officers and plagued with chronic illnesses, yet they were cultivated with a superior education, which gave them an advantage in their development as effective public speakers and politicians. They were detached from the business ethos, devoted to government but never enslaved to it, serene in the exercise of power, and committed to the use of authority for the ends of human welfare and freedom (Schlesinger, 677). As a result, Kennedy and Roosevelt were loved. They knew that to achieve discourse, a president must first create an elegant sense of expressiveness and familiarity with the citizens on whom their greatness depends.
Despite the fact that Roosevelt’s presidency spanned 12 years and Kennedy’s only 1,000 days, Kennedy accomplished much in little time. Above all, he briefly gave humanity the image of a leader who understood the hope and possibility of life on this planet, and who made the people look past race and nationality to the future of mankind. His words transformed the American spirit and, even after his death, released an energy that would guide the land he loved for many years to come (Schlesinger, 1031).