Forty-five years ago this week, John F. Kennedy gave two of the finest speeches of his eloquent, foreshortened presidency—and illustrated a history lesson from which Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain could learn.
One of the themes weaving itself through this electoral season concerns the power and purpose of rhetoric: John McCain (and previously Hillary Clinton) asserts that policy substance should trump Barack Obama's rhetorical stylings. I have substantive experience, goes the argument, while Obama has empty words.
The truth is that the bully pulpit is a key tool for a president but one of many. No chief executive can discard or dismiss the power of words, but neither can a president afford to underestimate its limits—context matters. JFK understood both sides of this equation.
While JFK is primarily remembered for his eloquence, he had a pragmatic view of the power of presidential words. In April 1963, when Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins visited Kennedy and encouraged him to push for a nuclear test ban treaty, the president said that he doubted whether it was a priority for the American people. He pointed out that on the White House's weekly mail report such a treaty ranked well below questions about daughter Caroline's pony.
But he decided the time was right for a speech reframing the Cold War and made it the topic of his June 10 commencement address at American University. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's speechwriter, cut the bureaucracy out of the drafting, huddling with a small group of White House advisers on the address. The first time Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Maxwell Taylor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, learned of the speech's content, on June 8, Sorensen and the draft were already winging on their way to meet Kennedy, who was on the last leg of a trip around the country.
Speaking to the graduating students on June 10, JFK discussed "the most important topic on earth: world peace." He noted that some said pursuing peace was pointless until the Soviet leaders changed their attitudes. But, he said, both sides in the Cold War needed to re-examine their views of peace and each other. Too many people believed peace itself "is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable—that mankind is doomed—that we are gripped by forces we cannot control."
He warned that Americans should not take "a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not . . . see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats."
"And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity," he told the graduates in his best-remembered line. "For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
It is hard to understand, 45 years later, how radical were such sentiments. It was almost "impossible for an American politician to make the sort of speech that Kennedy gave," historian Robert Dallek later wrote. "It was a tremendously bold address that carried substantial risks." The speech had little initial domestic impact. Of the 50,000 letters received at the White House in the week after Kennedy spoke, fewer than 900 pertained to the speech, while 28,000 focused on a freight rate bill ("That is why I tell people in Congress they're crazy if they take their mail seriously," JFK said).
But as a new course in U.S. foreign policy—with ideas that still ring true in the post-Cold War world—it was a powerful and eloquent signal to adversaries abroad and bureaucrats at home. JFK announced in the speech renewed negotiations with the Soviets on nuclear testing, and within months an agreement banning atmospheric testing was signed in Moscow.
While JFK was giving his speech on international peace, a domestic crisis was unfolding in Tuscaloosa, Ala. On May 21, a federal district judge had ordered the University of Alabama to enroll a pair of black students for the summer session. The crisis reached its peak on June 10 when JFK federalized the Alabama National Guard and ordered that the school admit the black students. Alabama Gov. George Wallace moving out of the schoolhouse doorway resolved the crisis. But JFK, who had come under heavy criticism from liberal allies for his inaction as the nation's civil rights crisis unfolded, decided that the time had come for presidential action.
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).