What made John F. Kennedy a great speaker?

What made John F. Kennedy a great speaker? by Tony Garcia

Answer by Tony Garcia:

Initially, John F. Kennedy was not a gifted public speaker. “Stiff and wooden were the words most often used to describe his oratory,” according to author Robert Dallek.(1) He spoke in a high-pitched voice, was humorless and never diversified from the text before him. He was boring, like a young teacher on his first day.(2)

He was aloof when dealing with the general public and appeared uncomfortable, perhaps a result of his chronic health issues.

Kennedy worked on his speeches. According to author Robert Dallek, young John Kennedy would sit with his father and sisters late into the evening, rehearsing his speeches. His sisters would learn his speeches by heart and his father would provide constant positive feedback.(3)

John Kennedy gradually began to inject feeling into his speeches. This can be seen in Kennedy’s speeches at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in support of Adlai Stevenson, candidate for president:

  • “I ask you, therefore, to think beyond the balloting of tonight and tomorrow, to think beyond the election in November—and to think instead of those four years that lie ahead and of the crises that will come with them.”
  • “These are problems that cry out for solution; they cry out for leadership; they cry out for a man equal to the times.”
  • “The time is ripe. The hour has struck. The man is here; and he is ready. Let the word go forth that we have fulfilled our responsibility to the nation.”(4)

Kennedy had become aware of the power of television and used it to his advantage. In the first televised political debate, the 1960 Democratic Presidential Primary in West Virginia, Kennedy outdueled his opponent Hubert Humphrey, causing professor of political science at Washington and Lee University Harvey Wheeler to remark:

“Kennedy came through with a stronger impression. Humphrey has the disadvantage of looking like Cassius. He has a lean and hungry ambitious look. But Kennedy happens to look like a composite picture of all the good stereotypes television has created. Apparently it was simply impossible for the citizens of West Virginia to imagine the Pope being able to tell this clean-cut American boy what to do or what to say.”(5)

Kennedy’s voice and appearance were pleasing to his audiences, whomever and wherever they were. His style fit well with the needs of the nascent television era. His appeals to the goodwill of his audiences (again, feelings) resonated after the laissez-faire of the Eisenhower administration.

Kennedy always presented a vision of the future and asked his audiences to help achieve that vision, whether it was uniting a divided Berlin or landing a man on the moon. He cast himself as the leader of the free world, and he asked his audiences to dream along with him.

He learned to use silence as a weapon in his oratory. Kennedy never mentioned his drawbacks, particularly, his ill health (a lesson learned from Franklin Roosevelt?)—a spinal operation in 1954, nine more hospitalizations from 1955 to 1957.(6)

John Kennedy learned to infuse his intellect into his speeches without grandiloquence—something few politicians at that time seemed capable of doing. He recognized that the generation whom he would represent were his peers, not subjects of a patrician. A lesson well learned.

(1) Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, by Robert Dallek, Penguin Books, 2004
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) John F. Kennedy Speeches
(5) The History of Televised Presidential Debates
(6) The Medical Ordeals of JFK

What made John F. Kennedy a great speaker?


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