A Minute With...

John Murphy, expert on presidential speeches

11/18/2013  8:15 am

Historians and pundits are reassessing John F. Kennedy’s legacy once again as the nation approaches 50 years since his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. His speeches have always been central to how he’s remembered. John Murphy is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois and an expert on presidential rhetoric. He is working on a book about Kennedy. Murphy spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about JFK, what he said, and the lasting influence of his words.

For those inspired by Kennedy, what were the themes that drew them in?

image of professor john murphyPresident Kennedy made it exciting to be an American, to take on the challenges that faced the nation, and to make this nation a better place. As he said in his inaugural address, “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

It seems we’re reminded of more key phrases from Kennedy’s speeches than for any other president since, save maybe Reagan. Why is that?

He and his speechwriters knew how to use parallel structure, antithesis, rhyme and rhythm to make phrases memorable. His most famous line – “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” – is a balanced antithesis, with an unusual placement of the negative – “ask not” – and an ABBA construction – country, you, you, country – that sticks in your head.

What was different about what he said, or how he said it, that was important for that time or the problems he faced?

He sought to invent out of traditional American values and terms new approaches for a changing time. In particular, he asked Americans to see the world from the perspective of others, and each other, in order to open the way for new policies. At his American University speech on June 10, 1963, he asked U.S. citizens to see what they had in common with the Soviets, and the next day, in his televised civil rights speech, he asked white Americans to see the world as African-Americans did. It was rare for presidents in the Cold War to do either one of those things.

What are the themes from his rhetoric, or his presidency overall, that have had a lasting effect?

The American University speech exemplifies the ways that a president can persuade Americans to negotiate with former adversaries and persuade those adversaries to view us differently. President Obama’s Cairo address shows a marked resemblance to the American University speech and Obama quoted that Kennedy text in his Nobel Prize acceptance address. Kennedy’s civil rights speech, along with Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, outlined the basic appeals in favor of equal rights that have animated such speeches since then.


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