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.