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The poetry, persuasion of JFK’s speeches

/ 01:56 PM November 18, 2013

Former US President John F. Kennedy. AFP FILE PHOTO

WASHINGTON – Americans, sometimes divided over John F. Kennedy’s political legacy, have little disagreement about the music and poetry of the martyred president’s soaring rhetoric.

Kennedy, who died a half-century ago this month, is on a pedestal all his own among US presidents for the his oft-quoted oratory.

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Passages from Kennedy’s speeches remain etched in the consciousness of a nation still moved by the majesty of his words.

The Democratic leader’s gift for delivering a finely crafted speech was evident from his January 20, 1961 inauguration, just weeks after his historic election.

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On a bitterly cold day, under a brilliant blue sky, Kennedy issued an inspirational appeal to his compatriots — a call to action that continues to be invoked by Americans to this day.

“Now the trumpet summons us again,” the president intoned, urging his countrymen to take up arms in “a struggle against the common enemies of man — tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”

And in its best-known passage — one of the most frequently cited lines of any political speech — Kennedy proclaimed: “And so, my fellow Americans — ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

The immortal words also are engraved in stone opposite his tomb at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Historians rank the speech second among the greatest examples of American speech-making in the 20th century — right behind Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” address.

Kennedy’s most rousing speeches seemed to be delivered during the nation’s most pivotal moments.

One such occasion was on May 25, 1961, when Kennedy issued his call to arms to the nation to win the space race, as America reeled from the devastating news that the Soviets had launched their Sputnik satellite into orbit.

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“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” the defiant president said in a speech remembered less for high-flying rhetoric than for its ability to capture the nation’s attention and inspire action.

On June 10, 1963, Kennedy delivered a commencement speech at American University in Washington, several months after the end of the Cuban missile crisis, in which he announced nuclear weapons talks with the Soviet Union.

“No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings,” Kennedy told the new graduates.

Two weeks later, on June 26, 1963, he uttered the now immortal phrase: “Ich bin ein Berliner” on the steps of Berlin’s Rudolph Wilde Platz, offering his nation’s support to the enormous crowd that had gathered in the divided German city.

Capturing in words a nation’s hopes, fears

Like no other American president other than perhaps Abraham Lincoln, historians say Kennedy’s words had a unique ability to stir the soul, and that he created the template for inspirational political oratory.

Blessed with undeniable charm and movie star good looks, Kennedy also possessed something more — a knack for the use of alliteration, an innate feel for the felicitous turn of phrase.

But he also was able to capture in words the hopes and fears of the nation, with an unerring talent for knowing precisely what Americans needed at any given time to hear from its president.

“Not only were they well-crafted and well- delivered, but the timing was impeccable,” said Thurston Clarke, whose book “Ask Not” is a monograph about Kennedy’s inauguration.

The young president’s rhetorical style has been often imitated by successors from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — but certainly never equaled.

Students of Kennedy’s life and legacy say that the late president had his chief speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, to thank for much of the brilliance of his speeches.

“Ted had been working with JFK since 1953. By the time he got to the White House, he was his closest adviser with the exception of the president’s brother,” said Adam Frankel, ex-speechwriter for President Barack Obama.

“A challenge for a speechwriter, in any White House, is getting access to the president,” Frankel said. “Ted did not have that problem.”

Always conscious of his image, Kennedy worked tirelessly on smoothing the hard Boston edges from his diction, and studied recordings of Churchill for guidance on the finer points of delivery.

“He wanted his speeches to have an impact in the moment, but he also felt that he was speaking for the ages,” said Jeff  Shesol, a historian and former speechwriter for president Bill Clinton.

Kennedy would not have been so pleased, however, that some believe that his speeches, and not his policies, are among his most significant achievements.

“He would certainly take pride in the fact that his speeches are so well remembered,” Shesol said, “but not at the expense of the work that he did. That would surely dissatisfy him.”

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