John F. Kennedy's Presidency

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What rhetorical devices and purposes are in JFK'S inaugural speech?

Rhetorical devices in JFK's inaugural speech include anaphora, rhetorical questions, and personification. Rhetorical purposes include promoting unity and establishing the United States as a global leader.

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Anaphora is the repetition of words or phrases at the beginnings of successive sentences or clauses for effect. Consider this section of the address:

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and...

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Anaphora is the repetition of words or phrases at the beginnings of successive sentences or clauses for effect. Consider this section of the address:

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.

Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to "undo the heavy burdens...(and) let the oppressed go free."

This successive repetition invokes a sense of national unity across party lines, thus linking to an appeal to pathos.

One of the most famous examples of antimetabole is also found in this speech:

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

Antimetabole is switching words or phrases to convey a truth; here, that again appeals to pathos. By constructing the sentence this way, Kennedy shifts the focus to a personal responsibility. Each citizen can make the country better.

Kennedy also employs zeugma near the end of this speech:

Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need—not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle...

Zeugma is a strategy where the meaning of a verb is shifted slightly as a sentence progresses. In these clauses, the verb bear begins with the thought of "bearing arms" but ends with "bearing the burden." Thus, the audience becomes connected to the idea of a collective struggle to shoulder responsibility together in an effort against all of mankind's common enemies: "tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself."

Kennedy successfully motivates his audience in this speech by crafting language that appeals to a sense of national unity and relies heavily on an appeal to pathos to move the country forward by moving them together.

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Rhetorical devices are persuasive techniques a writer (or speaker) uses to sway an audience to agree with his or her point-of-view about a subject. 

In his inaugural address, Kennedy's purpose is to lay out a vision of the United States as a global leader and to show that US leadership will benefit the entire world. He also wants to unite people by encouraging everyone to strive for idealistic goals. He does this, in part, by using terms that have a strong positive connotation to most people. For example, he uses the words "freedom" or "free" a total of nine times in a short speech. Being "free," which he never defines except to imply that it means throwing off the "chains" of poverty, evokes positive feelings.  Kennedy likewise invokes "peace," a word that most people would respond to positively—especially so soon after the end of World War II.

Kennedy appeals to the idea that freedom, or what he calls the "rights of man," come not from the state, but from God. God has a strong positive ethos or character to most people: if something comes from God, we are not likely to challenge it.

Kennedy also uses flattering language to get the American people on his side:

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

Kennedy's speech appeals to people's higher nature by calling for unity in working toward common goals. He reverses the typical politician's promise to bring "pork" back to his constituents and, instead, memorably tells people to ask themselves what they can do for their country and not what their country can do for them. He also reaches beyond Americans in this Cold War period, asking the "citizens of the world" to also ask themselves what "together we can do for the freedom of mankind." 

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JFK's inaugural address invokes the use of many rhetorical devices:

1. REPETITION: Many of his paragraphs started with "Let both sides..." I think this demonstrated his purpose to unify the country. Partisian politics are difficult throughout the course of an election and he was trying to bring the nation together after the contest.

2. PARALLEL STRUCTURE: This use of repeating grammatical structures creates a rhythm that envokes our attention:

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, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

These italicized words share the same grammatical format: verb + any + noun.

3. RHETORICAL QUESTION: These questions not meant to be answered allowed are positioned to make the audience think about how they would answer the question. Most speakers hope this create action:

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

4. ALLUSION (reference to something famous, in this case... God): JFK was specifically elected because of his Catholic background. He cites this at least twice:

the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

and again:

With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.

The italicized is an additional device: personification.

His rhetorical purpose in addition to unifying the country can be summed up in the statement he used that has certainly outlived his legacy: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." He wanted to involve the people in the process from here on out.

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The inaugural address of newly-elected President John F. Kennedy remains among the most revered in American history.  Kennedy’s election over the incumbent vice president, Richard Nixon, symbolized for many a major transition from the conservative 1950s to the more socially-liberal decade beginning commensurate with the election of 1960.  An administration for which the metaphor of Camelot would become synonymous, the young, vibrant senator-turned-president represented a new beginning filled with hope, and nowhere was this better captured than in Kennedy’s inaugural address.  Kennedy’s opening line – “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom -- symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning -- signifying renewal, as well as change” – was intended by presidential speechwriter Theodore Sorensen to evoke favorable comparisons with the departed administration of Dwight Eisenhower, although subsequent analyses of the latter would prove considerably more kind to the former general-turned-president than was the case at that time. 

As an exercise in political rhetoric, Kennedy’s speech was masterful. It was a clarion call to action on both the foreign and domestic fronts, with pronouncements of vigilance balanced by an articulate defense of diplomacy.  Kennedy was no “dove” when it came to foreign policy.  On the contrary, as a senator he was a vocal advocate of American involvement in Southeast Asia to prevent communist aggression.  His inaugural speech, accordingly, reflected his professed determination to be diligent in projecting American power in defense of U.S. interests and ideals, as in the following passage:

“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. 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.

“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.”

This oft-cited passage was designed to assure those Americans concerned about national security that his administration would not wilt from challenges abroad and that the spread of democracy would be a cornerstone of his foreign policy.  His rhetoric was a warning to the autocratic regimes of the Soviet Bloc and Communist China that their repressive practices would ultimately redound to the benefit of those who favored freedom, as when he noted, “. . .in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside,” meaning, those who sought to secure their power on the backs of a captive populace would eventually be overthrown by that populace.

Having come to power employing political rhetoric during his Senate days and during the presidential campaign suggesting that President Eisenhower had been weak on national defense – Kennedy trumpeted the notion of a “missile gap,” implying a serious failure on the part of Eisenhower to preserve U.S. nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union – the newly-elected president emphasized his own commitment to a strong national defense, stating, “We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.” Additionally, the speech employed rhetoric designed to emphasize the long-term nature of the confrontation between democracy and communism to effect his transition from foreign to domestic affairs, as when he vowed in the following passage:

“Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need -- not as a call to battle, though embattled we are -- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,’ a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

Finally, in the speech’s most frequently cited passage, Kennedy challenged Americans to put the common interest of the nation above their individual self-interest.  The administration that would establish the Peace Corps, a program that would send mostly young, idealistic Americans to less-developed regions of the world to help with small-scale social and economic development at the village level, was ushered into office with Kennedy’s admonition that Americans should “ask not what your country can do for you; [but, rather] ask what you can do for your country.”

President Kennedy’s eloquence that afternoon of January 20, 1961, would be the defining feature of his presidency.  As an exercise in political rhetoric, it was a powerful motivating force for the American public (at least that percentage of the public that hadn’t supported Nixon in the election).  The inaugural address made substantial use of pathos and ethos, appealing to the nation’s emotional proclivities and sense of nationalism. The first Irish-Catholic to be elected president emphasized the role of religion in defining the nation’s reason for being, as when he declared that “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God,” a signal that his administration shared the religious conservatism of many Americans.  Religion, in other words, would be a defining feature of the ideological struggle he was prepared to pursue against the "godless communists" on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  His approach to the pressing problem of nuclear proliferation and the U.S.-Soviet competition in the realm of nuclear weaponry – what he termed in the speech “the dark powers of destruction” – displayed a willingness to employ metaphorical rhetoric for optimal effect.  In short, this was a speech rich in rhetorical devices and articulate in its delivery.

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