As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death, some faculty members reflect on his magical gift for speaking to the American people and some consequences of his death.
Legacy of words
By Dr. Steven Goldzwig
Though one may find chinks in John F. Kennedy’s armor, no one doubts that the American people remember his words and deeds — most often with persistent and sustained admiration. In part, the 35th president’s continuing appeal has much to do with Kennedy’s ability to measure his generation’s hopes and fears, needs and desires, and then speak about them in an elegant, inspirational oratorical performance that fired the public’s imagination and influenced the course of history, politics and culture.
Kennedy was not only the nation’s first Catholic president. He was my first president. I was 13 years old when he was assassinated. His brief tenure as president affected me deeply and led me in later life to serious scholarly inquiry in which I strive to understand the public words and deeds of presidents and what they mean to our nation.
Three of the most significant speeches Kennedy delivered during his presidency were his inauguration address and two speeches delivered on consecutive days in June 1963. In these speeches, he attempted to change the course of history through persuasive appeals to both national and international audiences. And though no one speech or set of speeches can be linked to direct causal relations, the luxury of hindsight and careful critical analysis allow us to realize anew that words can affect us deeply, and they can predispose us to act. Individuals and nations can prosper when they are the beneficiaries of sustained and powerful rhetorical leadership. As Dr. Stephen Lucas, a colleague in rhetorical studies who teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, observes: “Despite our computer age, there is still no substitute for public speech to lead, galvanize, console and inspire.”
The power of Kennedy’s rhetorical legacy lies in his defense of universal values such as freedom, human rights and equality. These values have lived in the hearts and minds of generations of Americans. It is a president’s task to rekindle these ideas and adapt them to present opportunities and challenges. This president’s rhetorical appeals still stand as living testaments of the power of words to move a nation and foster change in a complex global society.
Addresses that stir hearts
On Jan. 20, 1961, Kennedy famously proclaimed at his inauguration: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
Though at times the young president could sound a bit bellicose, he left little doubt about how he envisaged America’s role in the global arena. He would defend freedom: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that 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.”
His appeals to domestic and international audiences were clarion calls to accountability. This kind of appeal is important in presidential leadership not only because it is inspirational but also because it sets a framework for accountability — for citizen and president alike.
On June 10, 1963, Kennedy delivered a commencement address at American University that was recorded in the annals of U.S. history as a landmark in public diplomacy. He called for peace as a common goal for all of humanity. As a concrete step toward that peace, Kennedy announced he would begin talks with Great Britain and the Soviet Union on a limited nuclear test ban treaty, which when concluded would strike a blow against the spiraling nuclear arms race.
He asked Americans to examine themselves as well as their adversaries, and he called on all to “make the world safe for diversity”: “So, let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. … For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
The president’s appeal to our common humanity as an argument against the prospect of nuclear annihilation did not go unheard. On July 26, 1963, he signed the limited test ban treaty with the Soviets. It was his proudest accomplishment.
For the first two years of his administration, Kennedy seemed tone deaf to civil rights. But in the summer of 1963, he delivered the most comprehensive and substantive address on civil rights ever made by any president in his response to the attempt by then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace to block the entrance of two black students to the University of Alabama.
In his June 11 address, Kennedy attacked a wider, more basic, national problem: “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
Kennedy boldly framed this issue in a way that took on additional gravitas: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”
Kennedy announced he would send Congress a civil rights bill to redress the present wrongs. It was a bravura performance, which was delivered, in part, extemporaneously. And though the president didn’t live to see his bill enacted into law, he staked out key provisions on civil rights that President Lyndon Johnson saw through to completion.
Setting a moral compass
In his inauguration address, Kennedy set the nation’s moral compass on the defense of human rights “at home and abroad.” Later in his presidency, a more seasoned and mature president addressed the two most conspicuously harrowing and intractable problems facing the United States — the international threat of thermonuclear war and the struggle for black equality.
But all of his most memorable speeches asked the nation to reflect upon itself and its neighbors and to come to some difficult, but necessary, decisions about what should be done and why. During the Kennedy era, it was not enough to propose policies merely for personal and social progress but, as the president put it, because it was “the right thing to do.”
At least part of Kennedy’s rhetorical legacy surely must be that he not only inspired and challenged but also identified avenues to engage in concrete action. The nation responded enthusiastically, inspired by big ideas that seemed unimaginable, such as manned spaceflight and the Peace Corps. And though hubris, disappointment and failure can attend any of our all-too-human endeavors, there is no denying that the Kennedy era was a time of high expectations, seemingly unlimited promise and moral challenge.
About the author
Dr. Steven Goldzwig, professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research in the Diederich College of Communication, will deliver a paper on President John F. Kennedy’s rhetorical legacy at the National Communication Association meeting in November.
A watershed moment
By Dr. John McAdams
The assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago had psychological and policy consequences for the American republic. The former are clear and easy to delineate. The latter are more murky and speculative, but perhaps important.
In the first place, the assassination was shocking. In 1963, Americans thought shooting the president was something that “just didn’t happen.” The assassinations of Presidents McKinley, Garfield and Lincoln seemed like ancient history, and the attempts on Presidents Roosevelt and Truman never really penetrated public consciousness.
It seemed normal in 1963 for the president to ride in a motorcade in an open-topped limousine, amid tall buildings with open windows. Soon enough after 1963, as Americans looked back on the assassination, it seemed like a watershed. While the 1950s were the “happy days” in which citizens married, created families, got an education and started careers, in the 1960s, Kennedy brought a sense of idealism to American politics. A great orator, he called on Americans to make the nation and the world better.
But after the shooting in Dallas, things started to go awry. The Cold War, which had been waged successfully in actions such as the Berlin Blockade and the Cuban Missile crisis, took an ugly turn in Vietnam. The cause of black citizens, which had been represented by leaders, particularly Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who appealed to the best instincts of the nation, was displaced in public perception by black militants who preached violence and hatred. Riots burned down entire sections of cities. A truculent and aggressive counter-culture emerged that attacked existing norms about sex, drugs and decorum.
Little if any of this was caused by the assassination, but the psychological turning point was real. The nation seemed to have lost its innocence. Public trust in government plummeted. Assassination conspiracy theories probably had some role in this, but so did revelations about real government misconduct — which were themselves a goad to conspiracy thinking. And real, vociferous disagreements about policy were the strongest cause of that declining trust. No matter what government did, an increasing number of people were alienated.
Kennedy, Johnson and policy
Any claims about how the assassination affected public policy in the nation are speculative. We don’t have a post-Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy presidency to compare to the real post-Nov. 22, 1963, Lyndon Johnson presidency. But some plausible inferences can be drawn. Some liberal policies, particularly the 1964 Civil Rights Act, received a boost because they could be considered part of the legacy of the martyred former president. However, Johnson was more passionately committed to civil rights, and to the downtrodden in general. Kennedy was a bit slow to get behind the civil rights movement — his initial agenda was a more conventional one of extending the New Deal. When he did embrace the movement, however, he did so with his characteristic rhetorical skill.
Johnson’s cultural ambiance did not appeal to Northern elites. Kennedy’s young Ivy League staffers called him “Uncle Cornpone.” Kennedy invited Pablo Casals to the White House and First Lady Jackie redecorated the place with exquisite taste. Johnson showed reporters his gall bladder scar. But Johnson’s Great Society programs are hard to imagine under Kennedy. Johnson was both more committed to helping those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and more capable of working his will with recalcitrant members of Congress.
The war in Vietnam
People in thrall of Camelot (the mythical realm of King Arthur that came to be associated with Kennedy) have insisted that Kennedy would never have gotten the nation into the Vietnam War. Indeed, several witnesses claimed he expressed to them an intention to withdraw completely from that southeastern Asia country. Unfortunately, those claims all come from staffers and friends and all surfaced years after the assassination when the war had become highly unpopular. Kennedy’s public statements up to the day he died insisted that South Vietnam should not be allowed to fall under communist domination. He increased the number of U.S. advisers there from fewer than 700 to more than 16,000, many in combat roles. When asked in April 1964 if John Kennedy had planned to withdraw, his brother Robert answered “the president felt that the. ... He had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam.”
Of course, in November 1963 the Kennedy administration held out hope that South Vietnam, with the help of U.S. advisers and aid, could hold off the invasion from the North. No one can know what Kennedy would have done in 1965 if he had faced the Hobson’s choice that Johnson did: Escalate dramatically or allow the Communists to take over in the South. It’s possible that Kennedy would have avoided the Vietnam morass — not because he was more liberal than Johnson but because he was less liberal.
Historians Francis M. Bator and Stanley Karnow have argued that fighting the war in Vietnam was a necessary protective cover for Johnson’s ambitious domestic agenda. Divisive recriminations over who lost Vietnam might have sapped Johnson’s political capital. Thus, policies liberals loved the “Great Society” went along with a war that they loathed and of which the public eventually tired.
Kennedy was a cold warrior who was clear about the evil that was Communism, who acted decisively in the Cuban missile crisis and touted his military buildup but also allowed the Bay of Pigs invasion to proceed. But he was also prudent and looked for ways to defuse tension between the two superpowers. His ban on nuclear testing in that atmosphere, negotiated with the Soviet Union, was the first step in a process that, under Presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan, led to a massive ratcheting down of the nuclear threat.
Kennedy established a “hot line” that allowed him and all future presidents to communicate directly with Soviet leaders in the Kremlin in a time of crisis.
Even Kennedy’s “idealistic” initiatives can best be seen as shrewd, enlightened attempts to increase America’s world prestige. His Peace Corps did that as well as mobilize the idealism of a young generation. His Alliance for Progress was a public relations boon in Latin American and made Kennedy extremely popular in the region — notwithstanding the results were far short of the public relations hype.
Kennedy is nowhere close to being among this nation’s great presidents, but he was the most glamorous, the most inspiring and the most charismatic. He certainly carried the aura of greatness. It’s supremely tempting to believe that had he not been assassinated in Dallas, things would have gone much better in America. Unfortunately, a cold, hard-nosed analysis shows that notion to be questionable.
About the author
Dr. John McAdams is an associate professor of political science in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. He teaches American politics, public opinion and voter behavior.