President Kennedy’s rhetoric sought to inspire and unify

By Chris McCarthy

On my shelf sits an anthology of great historical speeches; a collection of orations, delivered by public figures as diverse as Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler, across millennia, whose delivery and dissemination materially affected the history of a peoples, a nation or the world.

In essence, the delivery of words is merely a series of vibrations. But though their audible existence is fleeting, they carry the potential of revolution. In his memoirs, Theodore Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s chief speech writer, aptly captured the transformative power of words:

The right speech, on the right topic, delivered by the right speaker in the right way at the right moment, can ignite a fire, change men’s minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives, and, in all these ways, change the world.

“I know,” he adds. “I saw it happen.” Regularly voted by Americans as one of the country’s best presidents despite a limited successful domestic agenda, Kennedy’s legacy is secured in part by avoiding nuclear catastrophe, a shattering assassination, his glamour and his iconic speeches. Once again America is led by a president today whose recognition of the power of words and his ability to deliver them with soaring eloquence are matched.

The latest shooting in Tucson Arizona, which killed six, has stunned the American public, fearful that the bitter and polarised rhetoric of recent political discourse had in some way contributed to this tragedy.

President Obama’s memorial speech for the victims last week transcended partisan politics, giving the nation the opportunity to grieve and inviting them to heal. As Tony Fratto, a Bush White House spokesman, put it: “At times of tragedy, a president has to put it in context, help people understand it better, find some deeper meaning to it.”

Kennedy underwent a similar task in his commencement address at the American University in Washington, D.C. on 10 June, 1963. The Cuban Missile Crisis the previous year had brought the world precipitously close to nuclear war, the gravity of which was not lost on the president. Determined to build more cordial relations with the Soviet Union, Kennedy delivered one of the most important foreign policy speeches of his tenure, reminding American and Soviet alike: “We all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future, and we are all mortal.”

By highlighting mankind’s fragility, their common aspirations and dreams, Kennedy sought to unite the peoples of two nations bitterly opposed, supposedly irreconcilably. Premier Khrushchev allowed the speech to be broadcast in the Soviet Union without censorship and in October that year Kennedy signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting all atmospheric nuclear testing.

Where Kennedy sought to unite, to seek a common bond, others strive to divide, to demarcate discourse and disagreement into diametrically opposed camps. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s video last week, staunchly defending herself and fiercely attacking her critics, was a gross misjudgment of the national mood and stood in stark contrast to Obama’s message of unity. The then-Senator Obama formulated in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention what President Kennedy understood in 1961, that there is no Red America or Blue America. There is the United States of America.

But in the same breath that lofty rhetoric and powerful oration can heal and inspire, it can also mislead. As Evan Thomas observes, Kennedy’s inaugral speech, as brilliant as it was, soon led into an escalated conflict in Vietnam, a botched Bay of Pigs invasion and an episode of bullying at the hands of Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Promises that America stood on the edge of, “a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams,” invited similar sentiments to the ‘hope’ and ‘change’ that Obama predicated his 2008 presidential campaign on.

But lofty aspiration and reality rarely align, the latter so often diluted relative to the former that one is left angry, hurt or disappointed that they could be fooled apparently so easily.

Kennedy is unique among post-war presidents as the only incumbent of the Oval Office whose popularity ratings never dropped below 50%. It’s no coincidence, however, that his lowest ratings came during his third year at the White House. Obama has witnessed a less-than-common precipitous drop below the symbolic 50% threshold in his first year but for most the gap between expectation and delivery becomes ever-yawning and the public’s affection increasingly diminished.

There is a moment in The King’s Speech – a wonderful film about King George VI’s efforts to overcome a stammer to address and inspire his people on the eve of war – where, upon inadvertently seeing a clip of an animated Hitler addressing a crowd, the future Queen Elizabeth II asks her father what the impassioned man with the Charlie Chaplin moustache is saying. “I don’t know”, comes the reply. “But he’s saying it rather well.”

The point? Oration and performance are powerful instruments capable of mobilising a whole nation. But the words themselves can breed anger and hatred as much as they bring hope and optimism. President Kennedy recognised the power of rhetoric to inspire and heal, to rally and to lead. Obama understands the medium in the same vein whereas others use language to antagonise and divide.

Stick and stones may break your bones but it’s invariably the language of others that will invite you to pick them up or put them down.

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