Political rhetoric: Expert analyzes JFK speech

17 Jan

(On Jan. 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered what many experts consider one of the best Presidential Inauguration speeches. Elizabeth Zoufal—a speech consultant, rhetoric teacher and coach of the debate team in the College of Communication at DePaul University—analyzes Kennedy’s speech and what made it so effective.)

By Elizabeth Zoufal

This week marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, a speech that continues to guide our nation and shape our values. It seems opportune, therefore, to take a moment to re-examine Kennedy’s rhetoric.

The speech, as a piece of rhetoric has much to recommend it, tight parallel structure, powerful prose, and soaring imagery. The use of language is masterful. The lessons it teaches are clear and elegant: “remember that, in the past, those that foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

However the use of antithesis is what sets this work apart.

The juxtaposition of the current reality against the future vision, the challenge to participate and lead in the creation of a new reality on the foundations of the old provide a template for those who seek to define vision and inspire others to follow.

In this time of the Cold War, Kennedy makes it clear that he will not back down “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” But at the same time he articulates the need to seek common ground, even with our adversaries: “ Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems that divide us.”

Kennedy establishes a new agenda using the symbolism of a trumpet call, he exhorts Americans to take up the “common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” He redefines the relationship between the people and the government “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

In summation, this is an oratorical masterpiece. Brief by inaugural traditions, he uses language with such facility that he creates a new-shared vision for the country.

Watch the original speech here:


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