What can we learn from JFK about presidential speechmaking?

Illinois communication professor John Murphy’s new book examines the legacy of John F. Kennedy through his speeches, looking at their style, substance and connection with Kennedy’s political philosophy and goals. Photo by Della Perrone

JAN 24, 2019 9:45 AM
CRAIG CHAMBERLAIN

John F. Kennedy was known for his eloquence as a public speaker, perhaps more than any modern president. But what made him so effective? U. of I. communication professor John Murphy examines the question in “John F. Kennedy and the Liberal Persuasion,” being published this month. Murphy spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlainabout what he found.

What did Kennedy and his speechwriters do that made his speeches memorable, especially for his early-1960s audience?

John Kennedy’s speeches were musical in a number of ways. For one thing, he exploited the rhetorical resources of balance and rhythm. His most famous speeches, his most famous phrases, bounced like the lyrics to songs. The balanced phrasing in “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” from his inaugural address, made the line seem natural, a form of common sense. In life, we like and value balance and we do so in speech as well. Add the repetition of key words and the rhythm of one- and two-syllable words, and you had a most memorable line, one that is still continually quoted.

“John F. Kennedy and the Liberal Persuasion” is published by Michigan State University Press.
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What can we learn from JFK about presidential speechmaking?
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What can we learn from JFK about presidential speechmaking?
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John F. Kennedy was known for his eloquence as a public speaker, perhaps more than any modern president.