JFK's American University and Civil Rights Speeches Hold Lessons for Obama and McCain

McCain and Obama could learn some lessons.

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JFK was skeptical of the power of rhetoric in and of itself, often citing Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I. When Owen Glendower boasts that he can "call spirits from the vasty deep," Hotspur replies: "Why so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?" On June 11, JFK, going against the advice of most of his aides, decided it was time. "We better give that civil rights speech tonight," he told Ted Sorensen (who decades later still marveled at the use of the word "we").

That civil rights speech did not exist at 2 p.m. when Kennedy made the comment, and Sorensen had to scramble to finish it before the president went on the air from the Oval Officeat 8 p.m. "I thought I was going to have to go off the cuff," JFK later told him. As it was, the president ad-libbed a conclusion to the speech.

"It ought to be possible," JFK said, speaking from the text Sorensen had prepared, "for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color."

"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," he told the country. "It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."

The question, he said, focused on whether all Americans would be treated equally under the Constitution.

"As I have said before, not every child has an equal talent or an equal ability or an equal motivation," JFK said, ad-libbing a conclusion, "but they should have the equal right to develop their talent and their ability and their motivation, to make something of themselves."

The speech was widely lauded as Kennedy's finest, but he remained unmoved about the power of rhetoric. When my father, JFK aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr., later praised the speech, Kennedy noted that an economic development bill he favored had suffered a surprise legislative defeatthe next day in the House. Summoning high ideals from the vasty deep, Kennedy was saying, had had little effect on day-to-day practical politics. "But of course I had to give that speech," JFK said after a pause, "and I am glad that I did."

Over two days, Kennedy had delivered a pair of speeches that were not only among the most eloquent of his career but demonstrated an understanding of the bully pulpit: In the proper context, words can be powerful tools of presidential leadership and education. The test for a President Obama or a President McCain will be finding the balance between devaluing the power of rhetoric through overdependence or crippling his presidency through rhetorical atrophy.

Robert Schlesinger is deputy assistant managing editor, opinion, at U.S.News & World Report and author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters (Simon & Schuster, 2008).