Jan. 20 marks 50 years since John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, and yet lines from the speech are still recited and replayed: "... the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans ... we shall pay any price, bear any burden ... ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country ..." Why do we still remember that speech, and why was it important? What part did Kennedy's rhetoric play in his popularity, then and since? John Murphy is a professor of communication and an expert on presidential rhetoric, working on a book about Kennedy's presidential speeches, and on an article about Barack Obama's campaign rhetoric. Murphy was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
View video: John Murphy talks about the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address.
It can be easy to look back on 1961, before Vietnam and Watergate, and think it was a time of national clarity and confidence. But was that the case?
Actually, there was anxiety at the time about who we were as a nation and our national purpose. Congress held hearings on the topic. We also were very anxious about the Soviet Union, which had beaten us into space with the Sputnik satellite only three years before. Their economic growth rate was higher, they seemed disciplined, they seemed strong. We were worried about how we were supposed to compete. There were anxieties about the march of science and technology, especially nuclear weapons. Part of the reason Kennedy got elected, as narrow as the margin was, was because he seemed strong and confident. People believed he could set a national purpose. He could lead.
So what made Kennedy's inaugural so effective?
I think it was primarily the way it created participation. In the middle section, he outlined his policy goals through repetition of the phrase "we pledge..." He acted as if we (Americans) were part of the oath of office, as if we took it with him. It created a real sense that we were on a common mission with our president. Kennedy defined the defense of freedom and the spread of peace as the national goals, and created participation to help enlist us in that effort, to create a sense of common good. That's what the whole "ask not" section is about, as well.
What else do you find unique about his rhetoric?
Kennedy was able to make a kind of muscular patriotism, or nationalism, and tie that to helping people. Liberal Democrats have had a terrible problem doing that since. He could make something like the Peace Corps (created several weeks after the inaugural) into a crusade for all Americans. He could create a sense that helping people was the highest calling to which you could aspire. In his speeches, social justice was patriotic.
Yet the speech has also been criticized for raising Cold War tensions and also laying the groundwork for Vietnam, especially in this sentence: "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." Is that criticism justified?
Yes and no. On the one hand, that phrase could easily justify Vietnam and, for that matter, the invasion of Iraq. On the other hand, that phrase occurred in the first section of the speech, as Kennedy outlined our present tasks. As the speech developed, he pushed forward in time and argued that "both sides" should seek peace in the future. So, he used this phrase to define the present but hoped that he could make a better future.
For many years after his assassination, Kennedy was often enshrined in the Camelot myth and placed on a pedestal, but then others have questioned what he really accomplished.
We always tend to think Kennedy spoke well but didn't do anything. Then President Johnson came in and passed Kennedy's program. Again, yes and no to that. Words are deeds, and the way Kennedy talked to us and the way Kennedy made us feel mattered. It gave the nation a considerable lift, a tremendous sense of confidence, a willingness to engage in difficult tasks. It's a pretty powerful misconception that a president's talking doesn't matter. I think it does.
Would a speech like Kennedy's have similar impact today, in a similar period of anxiety and uncertainty?
People speak differently today and listen differently as well. I'm not sure the same speech would lift us as it did then. But I think Americans would respond strongly to a call for the common good.