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President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address
President John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address to the American public on January 20, 1961. President Kennedy’s inaugural speech is designed to deliver a message of hope and perseverance against foreign threats, specifically the communist Soviet Union, against whom the United States was involved in the Cold War. In his speech, President Kennedy takes the global stage, capitalizing on the emergence of mass media and the ability to reach people on a worldwide scale to deliver a message meant to be heard both home and abroad. President Kennedy’s inaugural address uses several different rhetorical devices—i.e., repetition and metaphorical imagery designed to produce pathos in the audience—to produce a compelling oratory that still resonates through the American consciousness to this day.
President Kennedy took office at a critical time in the history of the United States. At only forty-three years of age, JFK became the youngest president ever inaugurated, and he captured the spirit of the public as the United States entered the turbulent decade of the 1960s, which would see sweeping changes in civil rights, freedoms, and liberties for marginalized sections of the country (Atkinson, 2011). JFK’s inauguration speech seeks to capture the imagination of the American public and provide a message of hope and renewal. Thus, President Kennedy structures his speech around several key themes: the changing times, Cold War fears, and the notion of American pride. President Kennedy’s primary audience are those in attendance at the Capitol, but his secondary audience, i.e., those millions watching on television both home and abroad (Kennedy’s speech was the first time an inaugural address was seen on color television), is far more significant in number (Atkinson, 2011).
In his address, JFK uses three emotive strategies to impart his central message: repetition, contrast/antithesis, and metaphorical imagery. One of the first things listeners recognize in JFK’s speech is his constant repetition. He continually repeats the phrasing “to those,” “let both,” and “my fellow” to maintain a rhythmic pace to the speech and also to give his words a poetic lilt. JFK also uses antithesis to provide a sense of contrast to his words—such as in lines like “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for you country” (Kennedy, 1961). President Kennedy often uses the word “not” in his speech to set up the antithesis, using contrast to bring about a sense of American spirit and pride. President Kennedy also frequently employs metaphorical imagery to drive his message home to the American public. For example, in the line, “To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery,” Kennedy gives listeners an image of an oppressed foreign populace struggling under communist regimes (an obvious reference to the forthcoming Vietnam conflict). By using metaphorical imagery, Kennedy preys on the fears of the American public at the height of the Cold War. This would give him leverage in public opinion as his agenda would shift to combating communism, particularly against Fidel Castro and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year.
President Kennedy’s inaugural address would impact the American consciousness for years to come; moreover, it is still commonly referenced today as an example of a successful rhetorical speech. Coming into what he knew would be a turbulent decade, it was important for Kennedy in taking office to impart both a sense of impending fear and salvation through American spirit and pride in one’s country. By using repetition, contrast/antithesis, and metaphorical imagery, JFK makes his primary and secondary audiences experience pathos (emotional response) and binds them to his cause of spurring social change and combating what he and the American leadership saw as a foreign threat in the communist Soviet Union.
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