Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ask Not

Speech By: John F. Kennedy
Date: January 20 1961
Location: U.S. Capitol
Occasion: Inaugural Address
We view this speech today through the long lense of half a century. That long perspective has done nothing to diminish its power.

Despite the pomp, ceremony, and celebration attendant with a Presidential inauguration, few inaugural speeches are memorable. Among that number we might include Roosevelt’s first, both of Lincoln’s, and, perhaps, Jefferson’s first. 

William Henry Harrison’s was memorable, but not for the reason’s he might have preferred. It was the longest, taking just over two hours to deliver outdoors on a cold, wet, March day. (Inauguration day was originally March 4.) He proceeded from there to serve the shortest term in office, just over 31 days, expiring from pneumonia and septicemia. While it is probably not true that “Old Tippecanoe’s” pneumonia resulted from his delivery of a two hour speech in inclement weather, it likely served as a warning to his successors.

Kennedy’s speech was reasonably brief, running only 14 minutes and 1364 words. So what, in this brief address, is so special?

For one thing, it is quite deliberately aimed at the whole world – not just the people he had just sworn an oath to govern. It might have been, in another setting a great foreign policy speech.

He is also clearly trying to dispel doubts, about whether he, the youngest man ever elected to the post, is up to the job. He does this by by creating an image of the historic forbears who created this great and mighty country he now leads – “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

He then proceeds to outline the one great concern of his time: “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” There it is – in subtle but undoubted form – the one great fear of his nascent presidency, and the world at large. Nuclear war.

At that point, he issues one of the great rhetorical passages of the speech: “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...” It conjures images of an ancient Greek messenger, tiring from his exertions, handing off the torch to the next runner, to light the way to the next city, so the message would not be delayed. What is particularly striking about this image is that the tradition of passing a torch is an invention of the modern Olympic Games, not the ancient ones. It dates back only to 1936!

Next he resorts to one of the most effective techniques of good speech writing – repetition. As we have discussed before, repetition serves the same purpose in a speech, as bullet points do on a piece of paper. It prepares the audience for each point the speaker wants to emphasize.

The phrase is “To those,” and it is an appeal to the world. To “old allies, new states, people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, sister republics south of our border, the United Nations, and finally, nations who would make themselves our adversary.

To each of these is offered a pledge – save for that last, “nations who would make themselves our adversary.” To those he makes a request: “that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.” It is now nearly a quarter century since President Reagan’s speech in the shadow of the Berlin wall, led to a lessening of tensions between the world’s two great nuclear powers. It somehow seems alarmist to read the words of 50 years ago. But at the time, it was anything but – as the Cuban missile crisis would soon prove.

He again resorts to using repetition, with the phrase: “Let both sides.” It is a challenge to both sides – to use their power to advance the human condition rather than diminish it.

Near the end, he issues a phrase which sounds hauntingly reminiscent of Lincoln’s first inaugural: “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. In Lincoln’s version it sounds like this: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.

Another haunting phrase from that paragraph is this: “The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.” It can’t help but escape notice that his own older brother would lie in just such a grave, had enough of his remains been recovered to bury, and, that he himself might have occupied such a grave, had things gone just a little worse that dark night in the Solomon Islands.

He expresses the resolve of his administration, and his nation, to defend freedom. Then it is on to the summation – the call to action. And a historic call it is.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

It could have just as easily been – “Don’t ask what your country can do for you.” But that would not have offered the rhetorical flourish which makes the phrase so memorable. Not only that, there is a natural cadence to this phrasing that creates a dramatic pause after “Ask not,” that would have been otherwise lacking.

From The Bully Pulpit – Tom

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