40 years ago today, the 35th President of the UnitedStates, John F. Kennedy, delivered the inaugural address that would change thelives of many young Americans. This was one of the most influential speeches inAmerican history, which had the power to persuade and shape the lives of anentire generation.
It was also the first inaugural address delivered to a massaudience on coloured television which arguably augmented its effect. His wordsare still relevant today, and simply shed light on the power and long-lastingeffect of diction. But why does this speech still inspire 40 years later? It issimply the effectiveness of Kennedy’s use of rhetoric and oratory; an art ofspoken discourse.Similar to last year’s election, President Kennedy underwent ahistorically partisan and tight race, which required a very persuasiveinaugural address to unite the country.
Accordingly,the speech had to heal the partisan divide and employed the anaphora “let bothsides…”, as must be done today.Engraved in history is the best-remembered antithesis: “Ask not whatyour country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. The tone of optimismand civic faith was not lost on the people. It made service an Americanimperative. This appeal was realized by Bruce Birch. “I remember feeling very invigorated byit” Birch says. “Feeling at the end of this speech, man, this really makes mewant to do something, to contribute”. This was precisely what the speechintended to do.
Birch went on to become the Dean of the Wesley TheologicalSeminary.Kennedy graciously articulated America’s Cold Wardesire to win the hearts and minds of people worldwide. He professed anaspiration to alleviate poverty in his famous phrase, “the trumpets summon usagain… struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, diseaseand war itself!”. His altruistic and hopeful goals arguably won over publicopinion. The presentation of these calls was done in a manner that sustaineditself as a moral American imperative to address them.
Such aims are asrelevant today, as they were four decades ago, but have we lost sight of them?President Kennedy also skilfully appealed to pathos through his repeateduse of the emotionally charged words “liberty” and “freedom”, the veryqualities we Americans hold dear. Additionally, this appeal is most evident inhis allusion to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev where Kennedy exclaimed, “Forman holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human povertyand all forms of human life”. Although he invokes pathos through this frightful statement, Kennedyeases the worries of the American people through the cunning use of ethos inhis plea for peace. Ethos was also categorically employed in the phrase, “Onlya few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hourof maximum danger.
I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it”. Hence,Kennedy was able to convince the public to place their trust in him and hisadministration. Such masterful display of persuasion is what makes this speechtruly memorable. With the dawn of a new millennium, there is a great deal ofuncertainty in the future and a period of prosperity is what we dearly desire. Fortunately,this has proven to be the case with unemployment dropping to a historic low of3.8%, the lowest since 1969. Furthermore, the labour force participation rate hasalso hit a historic peak of 67.
4%. What we require is an effective and successful presidency to sustainsuch prosperity. Notably, the first sign of a great presidency is the inauguraladdress and we will witness precisely that today. Kennedy’s inaugural address both started and ended with a call forAmericans to reach for greatness. One of the most famous lines from the speechis arguably when he stated, “the torch has been passed to a new generation ofAmericans”. Its memorable nature is drawn from its implications.
The torch canbe interpreted to refer to leadership, with the central message that Americansmust rise up to their full potential, both as individuals and as a nation. Another demonstration of President Kennedy’s flawless display ofpersuasion is his use of rhetoric, with logos. This was first seen when hesaid, “To those people in the huts and villages across the globestruggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts tohelp them help themselves…because it is right”. Many people fail to realisethat this seemingly straightforward phrase is, in fact, rich with persuasion.He appeals to his audience’s sense of logic to help those less fortunate whichessentially makes the reader appreciate just how much power they truly possessto make a change.
This once more can be interpreted to be a call to service.This simply demonstrates the effectiveness of rhetoric and oratory.It certainly is a very difficult skill to master, but it is clear that Kennedyacquired this over time.Once more, we find ourselves on the edge of a New Frontier – thefrontier of the 21st century. If we carry ourselves with the lessonslearnt from the past, along with the messages of President Kennedy’s address,we may find a very prosperous and thriving future worldwide.