JFK's Virtuoso Turn at the Bully Pulpit

Kennedy presented a radical idea: Peaceful coexistence.

President John F. Kennedy.
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It was the first time a president had argued that all Americans should have equal access to public accommodations. "He did have to be dragged kicking and screaming to putting civil rights before the Congress but it was a courageous thing to do because he and Bobby [Kennedy] thought it would jeopardize his re-election," historian and Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek says.

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Of course, the bill he did introduce stalled, only passing when Lyndon Johnson framed it as a tribute to a fallen president's legacy. Kennedy knew he wasn't going to get the law in his first term, but he charted a course with the speech for his agenda and for the country.

There are lessons in these speeches about the bully pulpit. It's a strategic tool for shaping the national debate; but, as Kennedy understood, the atmosphere surrounding the speech has to be properly aligned: The country must be paying attention. And even speeches history considers great don't necessarily have huge initial impacts: The White House received 50,000 letters in the week after the AU speech, but only 900 touched on his peace address. ("That is why I tell people in Congress they're crazy if they take their mail seriously," JFK remarked.)

Working at such a strategic level can limit the bully pulpit's tactical utility, despite the myth that it can move the public in the immediate term. In the end, the bully pulpit's use might have more to do with posterity than day-to-day politics – especially in the 21st century's fractured media environment. "What is Kennedy remembered for?" Dallek says. "The guy has this tremendous hold on the public imagination, it's because of his rhetoric and because of the hope. … This is what really counts with people. They remember the rhetoric."

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