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Rhetorical Analysis of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address


Stewarts (2004) suggested that Herbert A Wichelns influenced rhetorical studies since 1925 through his essay “The Literary Criticism of Oratory.” In this sense, oratory is considered naturally as statecraft but critics have almost always focused on “the minutiae of style and with whether a speech was “literature” (p 407). However, Wichelns also noted that while rhetorical criticism lie “at the boundary of politics” it was concerned audience impact and judgment over time instead of beauty or permanence (1925).

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As such, the critic determines the speech impact through assessment of the situation – past current and expected future – “the audience, the speaker’s personality and public character, speech preparation, arrangement, style, ideas, motives, topics, proofs, judgment of human nature, and delivery” (Stewarts, 2004, p 408).

By 1954, Marie Hochmuth Nichol dissected the text of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address and analyzed the rhetorical situation, press coverage, the president’s images from coast to coast, how the speech was done, its delivery as well as popular reaction, the purpose of the speech, use of language, argument and style. The speech became the focus.

This paper will try to discuss Rhetor, Audience, Context, and Critique John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address.


In John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address delivered on 20 January 1961, his most famous line was spoken, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Instead of a divide, his speech sought unity and cooperation among nations, an active and vigilant citizenry, and togetherness in fighting tyranny, poverty, disease, and war. In closing, he said, “whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.” (American Rhetoric, 2009).


John F. Kennedy is considered a “crisis manager” who had to address a lot of events and issues that include: the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Space Race, the African American Civil Rights Movement and early events of the Vietnam War. In summary, Kennedy discouraged commerce and trade with countries that plan to harm the United States, the Communists and supplying bombs to the middle east. Prior to being elected as President, he was congressman and then a senator, from a successful political family which produced a president, 3 senators and multiple representatives from federal to state levels.

In summary, John Kennedy was a good orator and delivered compelling messages of which was considered the best was his inaugural address. Faced with crises, he attempted to manage the crisis as well as “manipulate it to further political, social and philosophical agendas. As noted by Thomas Benson (2004), John Kennedy’s administration subscribed to Richard Neustadt’s book Presidential Power (1960) like a bible. The book states, that “…since the president’s only real power was the power to persuade, he had to manipulate each of his constituencies in order to use each for the manipulation of the other (p 9).

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Many consider the inaugural address of Kennedy as iconic. It could be because there had been low esteem of the public for governance at that time: there was an escalating Vietnam War, an arms and space race, cold war, Cuban and missile crisis, among other issues that inflate insecurity of a nation that has established itself as the protector of freedom.

Kennedy was seen to have established his charisma and association with the media such as his involvement with the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and the American Newspaper Publishers Association (ANPA). He used press conferences and off-the-record briefings to his advantage (30). As compared to previous presidents, Kennedy spent more time not only with newspapers but also frequent live televised press conferences to the chagrin of newspaper journalists. There was a shift to television and news magazines as primary outlets for administration stories (A&M University Press, 2002).


The President’s address admonished a public of their capacity to “abolish all forms of poverty” as well as all forms of life or destruction, with “the rights of man” to have come from God. He admonished the public to safeguard and promote human rights and liberty all over the world, to do which is right, promote good deeds, a “request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction,” (American Rhetoric, 2009)

He has stressed the need to, “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce,“ (American Rhetoric, 2009)

“Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to “undo the heavy burdens… and to let the oppressed go free,” (American Rhetoric, 2009).


The motives and actions of the inaugural address can only be interpreted in the days of the presidency of John Kennedy. Here, he had started to commit blunders. And as earlier noted, has started the use of persuasion and manipulation. In the Bay of Pigs invasion, its planning stage had the administration leaders faked to distance the United States from the invasion to make it look Cuban-led. It also tried to entice Fidel Castro to make the first strike to justify retaliation and invasion (Stewart, 2004).

Through the extensive use of mass media’s print and broadcast by Kennedy, the presidential rhetoric was viewed as “addressed to the press, through the press to the public, using materials written in public and behind the scenes by the press, and over the heads of the press to the public (A&M University Press, 2002).

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The drama and popularity of the Kennedy family provided a big impact on the perceived importance of the 1961 Inaugural Address. His short presidential term stunted by an assassination doubled this human drama making it appealing to a wider and sympathetic global audience.

The sincerity of a speech may be glimpsed by its content and delivery which many delivering an inaugural address aspire to achieve. This may be achieved more than people could recall if they had listened or known of these addresses, or cared to know which obviously is a matter of choice, and a matter of media hype.

As noted throughout the essay, President Kennedy successfully gained the print and broadcast media to his side, making him known and “close” to the people he served. But in reality, he was a better orator than an administrator who has fed on the human leaning on drama and the hype of a media that was charmed. He had a good speechwriter.


Stewart, Charles J. (2004). “Back to Our Roots: The Library of Presidential Rhetoric.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 7 (3), pp. 407-419

Murphy, John M (2000) Crafting the Kennedy Legacy. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Volume 3, Number 4, pp. 577-601

Benson, Thomas (2004). Writing JFK: Presidential Rhetoric and the Press in the Bay of Pigs Crisis. A&M University Press

A&M University Press (2002). “Announcing the New Library of Presidential Rhetoric.” A Press Release.

American Rhetoric (2009). “John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address.” Web.

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