History Lesson

Ask Not Why Inaugural Addresses Are So Rotten

We have the answer.

JFK: Last of the classical orators

In the last 44 years, no president has delivered a memorable inaugural address. The only speech to come close was Ronald Reagan’s 1981 effort, an impassioned argument for smaller government. Even that speech, however, is recalled essentially for its one Bartlett’s-worthy line: “Government is not the solution to our problem.”

Why have inaugural addresses in modern times failed to stir the public? Every four years, pundits hearken back to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech—the last great one—and suggest that the new president treat it as a model. But this advice never seems to work. For one thing, when it comes to public speaking, most presidents are no Jack Kennedy. And for another, times have changed: The high-flown classical style that a venerable ritual like the Inauguration seems to call for no longer really works.

Read today, Kennedy’s speech remains compelling in style and substance. For years admirers have praised its graceful phrasings and uncluttered language. The speech offers a textbook’s worth of classical rhetorical devices, among them chiasmus (“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”), anaphora (“Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms. … Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors.”), anastrophe (“United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do.”), and others. The rhythms are elegant and musical.

Rhetorical polish alone, however, doesn’t account for the speech’s effectiveness. Kennedy’s oration worked because it pithily expressed the liberal internationalism that he hoped would guide the country through the Cold War. Although the speech is often recalled as loftily idealistic—thanks mainly to its signature “ask not” call to sacrifice—Kennedy balanced his idealism with his trademark realism. His optimism is tempered by pessimism: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” Each dose of tough talk (“For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed”) is followed by a gesture of conciliation. (“But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course … both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom.”) The pledge to “oppose any foe” gave way to a promise to assist impoverished nations “for whatever period is required.” Kennedy found an equilibrium that has eluded most of his successors, reassuring Americans and allies of both his strength and peaceful intentions.

Indeed, substantively, the speech’s only major shortcoming is its failure to engage the domestic challenges then confronting America—particularly the struggle for black equality, then rapidly intensifying. In his new book on the Kennedy speech, Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America, Thurston Clarke cites Ted Sorensen’s recollection that Kennedy dropped the domestic sections because he wanted to keep the speech short. Only at the urging of his civil rights advisers Louis Martin and Harris Wofford did the president-elect include the words “at home” in declaring his commitment to the spread of civil rights “at home and around the world.” Although the neglect of the era’s great issue is, in retrospect, clearly an error, in one limited sense JFK’s instincts were right: By avoiding a long discussion of domestic affairs, his speech stayed tight and focused, unburdened by the litany of issues that often bog down presidential pronouncements.

The address also profited from Kennedy’s speaking talents. In his formal education and his home life, Kennedy learned a taste for the classics. Like his mother, Rose, he throughout his life copied down felicitous or aphoristic phrases, many of which found their way into his speeches. (Clarke persuasively shows that although Sorensen and other advisers contributed to the address, the president-elect himself determined its outlines, assiduously crafted it, and wrote many of its best lines.) Having cultivated his ear for oratory in a culture that esteemed formal, Churchillian grandeur, Kennedy developed his skills as a speaker accordingly. Fittingly, his famous “ask not” line derived, indirectly, from Cicero. (Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Warren Harding had used variations of it as well.)

These questions of tone point to another reason Kennedy’s inaugural stands as the last great one, unrivaled even by those of such skilled communicators as Reagan and Bill Clinton. As the linguist John McWhorter has argued, shifting cultural norms alter the standards by which we judge oratory. Already in the 1960s, the public’s expectations of political rhetoric were changing. Those changes accelerated as the decade progressed, hastening the end of the formal mode of speechmaking that had prevailed.

Many factors sped the change. The 1960s revolution in manners and morals, with its revolt against authority, blurred the line between formal and informal speech, helping slang and vernacular elements gain a foothold in public utterances. Television not only conditioned viewers to prefer shorter, breezier exchanges, but also promoted a chattier, more colloquial style of talk. The patrician accents of Franklin Roosevelt came to sound archaic; the enunciated, British-inflected speech of golden age Hollywood actresses came to strike us as absurdly artificial. A folksy style helped Bill Clinton and George W. Bush seem appealing next to less fluent politicians like John Kerry, Al Gore, and George Bush Sr. “As late as the early sixties, language like [George W.] Bush’s would have been as off-key as going to work without a jacket and tie,” notes McWhorter. “Meanwhile, for a presidential candidate to communicate to the public in language like Kennedy’s today would ensure his defeat.”

But why haven’t recent presidents managed to invent a new oratory—one that inspires with the artful use of more colloquial language? Partly, the problem is that the Inauguration, with its antiquated pageantry and its ritual invocations of the Founding Fathers, compels presidents to try to emulate Kennedy (or FDR, or Lincoln)—and they invariably fail. Inaugural speeches that reach for the lofty and literary usually sound stilted (like Clinton’s in 1993). On the other hand, when they aspire to sound accessible and familiar, they fail to rise to the occasion, as did the elder Bush  in 1989.

And there’s a more basic obstacle confronting today’s presidents as well. Since Kennedy’s day, we’ve not only revised our expectations of presidential speech, but our expectations of the office altogether. The troubled presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (whose difficulties stemmed in part from the same cultural turmoil that changed the language) made Americans view their chief executives with far more cynicism, and far less reverence, than they had at the Cold War’s height. Kennedy’s pomp-filled Inaugural, widely recalled as a snapshot of Camelot at its most regal, now stands on the other side of a historical divide. The reason that presidents have such trouble recreating the “idealism” of that 1961 address is because the inimitable idealism wasn’t really Kennedy’s. It was ours.