Profile of an Orator: John F. Kennedy

This essay is a profile of John Kennedy as an orator and on his communication skills in general. It is not a political biography.

Unlike Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher who were conviction speakers with ideological messages, John Kennedy’s platform was more inspiring, pragmatic and liberal. His Inaugural Address and his speech at the Berlin Wall are examples of this. He was a man of his time, and his style suited this epoch of the mass media. Following the dull post war years of the Eisenhower administration, he brought a new spirit to the body politic. Kennedy’s attractive non-verbal style did much to endear him to his audiences.

Picture from Wikipedia

When President Kennedy rose to make his speech on that blustering day at the end of June in 1963 in Berlin, the multitude waited, as did television audiences round the world, in some anticipation, for the President’s speech. What they got was what they had hoped for, a stimulating and inspirational speech. He ended this memorable speech in the following way:

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we look — can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades.

… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.”[2]

What, in fact, Kennedy did here was to articulateAmerica’s leadership to the peoples ofWest Berlin,West Germanyand, indeed, the rest ofEurope. Jack Kennedy’s communication style was that of an orator, and he didn’t let his audience down.

A reluctant Kennedy enters politics

When Jack Kennedy set out on this campaign, he was a very young-looking 29 year old, not very healthy, somewhat cold, and aloof from his own party people, and, more interesting for us, not a very confident public speaker. People, even from his own party, asked what this privileged son of a multimillionaire had to offer the people from the Eleventh District inBoston. He certainly didn’t have a reputation for hard work and showed no signs of being especially good at communication either from the podium or at an interpersonal level, where he was constantly accused of being indifferent to people. His opponents also openly accused him of using his father’s money to buy his Congressional seat. Certainly there was a degree of truth in this accusation, although many of his opponents either inherited their money, like Cabot Lodge, or simply married it, like Lyndon Johnson.

A stiff and wooden speaker

In a nutshell, according to author Robert Dallek, Jack Kennedy was a hopeless public speaker in the years running up to his electoral success in 1946.[3] “Stiff and wooden were the words most often used to describe his oratory”, writes Dallek. He spoke in a high-pitched voice with no trace of humour and never diversifying from the text in front of him. It was boring. He was like a young teacher on his first teaching practice.

Also, he appeared uneasy speaking to people he didn’t know in one-to-one situations. One commentator said that “you had to lead him by the hand” when mixing with the general public as otherwise he would just disappear. He certainly wasn’t a mingler and appeared cold and distant. One could say he was a very apolitical candidate running for Congress.

One problem he had, of course, was his health. A more sedate lifestyle must have seemed more attractive to him. Kennedy once said that “I would rather go somewhere with my familiars or sit alone somewhere and read a book”.[4] At this stage of his political career, he appeared the opposite to his grandfather, Honey Fitzgerald, the former Mayor of Boston, who loved mingling with people, loved public speaking, and loved being involved in the day-to-day politics of the city.

Kennedy’s acceptance of feedback

But Kennedy did make the necessary changes in his behaviour. He began to rehearse his speeches with his sisters, and sit with his father late into the evenings evaluating his day’s performance. In fact, there is one story told about how one of his sisters used to learn his speeches off by heart so she could prompt him if his memory let him down. According to Robert Dallek, Jack Kennedy’s father was very positive about Jack’s performances as a speaker but also made him aware of his shortcomings.[5] This support gave Kennedy both a lot of self-confidence and the will to fix his shortcomings. For example, Dallek gives the circumstances of a particular speech when Jack complained that he felt he had been boring, and his father immediately assured him that he was greatly improving day by day. This feedback was constant.

His behaviour changed in other ways too, in that he began to do what most politicians running for election would call a decent day’s work. At seven every morning he was now to be found at factory gates introducing himself to people going to work. He then moved on to radio talk shows and visits to businesses and other public places. He kept this pace up throughout the day, usually ending his campaign each evening by attending one or more of the social events organized by his sisters with various women’s groups. Kennedy was now turning in a fourteen hour day, something which very few people expected, given his track record as a laid-back newspaperman with the Chicago Herald.

The 1946 Congressional elections

Nationally, the tidal wave was in favour of the Republicans, although Harry Truman, a Democrat, was in the White House. Even in Massachusetts the Democrats were to lose their US senate seat and the governorship. In all, the Republicans gained 55 seats in the House and 12 Senate seats.

But the Eleventh Congressional District was an exception; it went to the Democrats. The 29 year old Jack Kennedy beat his Republican opponent by over 43,000 votes. He received 69,093 votes and his opponent 26,002 votes. It was a clear victory that went against the national trends and showed much about how Kennedy had made the change in his work habits and was accepting his life as a politician. In the following election, Kennedy increased the size of his majority by more than 25,000.  Kennedy’s adversaries will stress his laid back attitude and his lack of legislative initiatives while in the House, but it is hard to accept this as a lack of interest in politics when one looks at his increased majorities.

The Senate election of 1952

After six years in the House, the options for Kennedy in 1952 were to stay on as a congressman, as most people seemingly expected, run for the governorship of Massachusetts, run for the Mayor of Boston, or to run for the Senate. It was election year, and a decision had to be made. He was now politically ambitious and ready to take calculated risks.

 The current governor of Massachusetts, Paul Dever, toyed with the idea of running against the sitting Republican senator, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., but remained uncertain that he could beat him. Jack Kennedy had no such feelings, so when the governor decided not to seek nomination, the way was open for Kennedy to run for the Senate against this highly respected incumbent senator. The fight for the senate seat was tough and evenly balanced, as Lodge brought in many of the big Republican names from Washington to support him, such as Dwight Eisenhower, the war hero and Presidential candidate.

Stephen Graubard wrote on the subject of Eisenhower’s appeal for support for Lodge: [6]

“Eisenhower, traveling to Boston on election eve to help Lodge, urged the crowd in the Boston Garden and the larger audience that heard him on radio to reelect the man who had first recommended him to ‘undertake this great crusade’, characterizing him ‘as a man of courage and conviction, a vigorous opponent of the menace of Godless Communism”.

 As in 1946, when the tidal wave had favored the Republicans, Kennedy beat the incumbent Republican senator. He had an impressive majority of 70,000 votes. It was impressive because Dwight Eisenhower, running for the presidency, trounced his Democratic presidential rival, Adlai Stevenson, in Massachusetts, by over 200,000 votes. The Republicans even took the governorship of the state from the Democratic incumbent, Paul Dever. But all was not successful for Kennedy.

Kennedy’s failure to secure the vice-presidency ticket

From the Senate, Kennedy supported Adlai Stevenson’s democratic candidature for the 1956 election to run against serving President, Dwight Eisenhower. However, Kennedy also saw this as an opportunity to seek the vice presidency for himself. He took the risk without making the preparations. He let his name go forward to the Democratic convention, hoping that his popularity and relationship with Stevenson would win the day.  What he did not calculate was Stevenson’s personal feelings towards Kennedy.

During these years, Kennedy had been slowly emerging as a popular speaker especially on television. He was generally liked by audiences, so it is little wonder that Stevenson should use Kennedy’s popularity to support his nomination. He asked Kennedy to make his nomination speech, a speech which Kennedy gladly made, apparently thinking that Stevenson would support his Vice Presidency bid.  In this speech to the National Convention we see a glimpse of what was to come in his mastery of the language of ‘feeling’. 

  • “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”. [7]

 But when nomination time came, Stevenson refused to support Kennedy’s candidature and his bid fell flat. Many of the delegates at the convention didn’t really know him personally other than by name. He hadn’t bothered to network. Obviously he had thought that Stevenson’s endorsement would be enough. In fact, on the second ballot it appeared that he could have made it without Stevenson’s support, but the transfer vote went against him. Senator Estes Kefauver from Tennessee obviously had done his homework among the party bosses and Kennedy lost. 

Vice Presidential Vote (with transfers on 2nd and 3rd ballots)


1st ballot

2nd  ballot

3rd ballot

Estes Kefauver




John F. Kennedy




Albert Gore, Sr.




Kennedy learned the lesson about his indifference to the party bosses and lack of networking.  It is one thing being popular with the general public, and it is another having a real relationship with the people you want and need to support you. Again Kennedy made the change. He worked hard at building his network and making close relationships with the party people across the country. Indeed, by the next party presidential election convention four years later, the results showed that he had done his homework well, as he won practically double his main rival’s vote for the party’s nomination. 

John F. Kennedy

806 delegates

Lyndon Johnson

409 delegates



The Race for the Presidency

Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson were Kennedy’s two main rivals for the nomination contest. Kennedy had first to confront Hubert Humphrey in the primaries of West Virginia and Wisconsin. Humphrey was intellectually sound, ideologically of the left, and had huge support among liberal democrats. Both of them, in fact, were portraying themselves as representative of the center ground and seeking liberal support. They met in the first ever televised political debate in the United States. This was to be decisive for both of their future political careers.

The West Virginia and Wisconsin primaries

Kennedy’s T.V. debate with Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia primary was the real test for two reasons. Was Kennedy up to the challenge of a one-to-one televised debate with a competent opponent? Secondly, how would he deal with the religious question? The answer to the first will become obvious, but it was in the second that we find Kennedy becoming more subtle with his argumentation.

Religion had become an issue in this predominately Protestant state. Hubert Humphrey was a formidable opponent and Humphrey certainly didn’t let him off the hook. At this time, many people openly said that Catholics owed their primary loyalty to the Pope, and not to the Constitution of the United States. Kennedy, it was claimed, would be subject to the influence of the Vatican. Kennedy responded that he was an American candidate for the presidency who happened to be a Catholic and not, as people said, a Catholic wanting to be president who happened to be born in America. It was a subtle argument.[8]

An effective use of non-verbal language

When Kennedy and Humphrey battled it out in the T.V. debate, the viewers gave Kennedy the vote. Harvey Wheeler wrote of Hubert Humphrey,

Humphrey went on the offensive but he looked all wrong. Remember Julius Caesar’s remark about Cassius. He was too lean and had a hungry and ambitious look.” Kennedy fitted the stereotype of the all American Ivy leaguer. [9]

It was this ‘good guy’ image that was to help create that special emotional relationship between Kennedy and his audience. He fitted into the ‘good guy’ category of American T.V. stereotyping.  This all-American Ivy Leaguer fitted with what the general viewers thought of what an American should be. They found it hard to believe that this young all American would take orders from the Vatican about politics. What the Kennedy team understood well was the importance of perception and identity in politics.

Kennedy’s victory over Humphrey in the largely Protestant states of Wisconsin and West Virginia proved decisive and showed that a Catholic could win if they were not perceived as too different. Why is this important for those interested in communication? Because it showed how Kennedy was able to communicate to a potentially hostile audience an identity which was very similar to their own perceptions of themselves. It showed that he wasn’t much different from them. It also showed the importance of identity to creating common ground with a hostile audience.

The Presidential election

However, he didn’t win everyone’s heart, and the Republican jibe about being soft on communism still continued. One critic was Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who made over 200 speeches in favor of Richard Nixon during the 1960 campaign, wrote to Nixon about Kennedy.

Shouldn’t someone tag Mr. Kennedy’s bold new program with its proper name? Under the tousled boyish hair cut is still old Karl Marx – first launched a century ago. There is nothing new in the idea of a government being big brother to us all. Hitler called it his state socialism and way before him it was benevolent monarchy”. [10]

Kennedy won the Presidential elections by a narrow margin, and right up to his inaugural speech, his popularity was generally low. However, shortly after his inaugural speech, his level of popularity moved up to well over 60%. The old arguments put forward by Lodge, Humphrey, Johnson, Reagan and many others about his religion, youth, and his father’s wealth were soon part of history as far as the majority of people both in the country and abroad were concerned.

John F. Kennedy’s visionary rhetorical style

As we will see in Appendix 1, Kennedy had been somewhat forced into politics in the 1946 campaign, forced into developing his oratorical skills in order to win elections, forced into networking in order to secure the party’s nomination, and finally, obliged to adjust his communication style to nation-wide television debates. It was out of these learning situations that Kennedy as an inspirational orator emerged. It was more motivational and ceremonial than argumentative. His oratory was a form that depended on the language of “feeling”.  We have chosen extracts from two speeches, his inaugural speech and the Berlin speech, to show this language of feeling in action.

 Other leaders have come and gone and have won the hearts of the people, but few could match Kennedy’s style as a twentieth century orator. This style was symbolic of articulate leadership in the Cold War period. Even Ronald Reagan’s highly successful speech at the same Berlin Wall some twenty-four years later lacked some of Kennedy’s kingly style. Reagan spoke from a carefully prepared text which was nearly three times the length of Kennedy’s speech. Although highly successful, it did not have the same impact as Jack Kennedy’s speech did.

Kennedy’s voice and appearance were pleasing to his audiences wherever they were. His audiences liked him. His style fitted very well the needs of the television era. Kennedy, as president, was the symbol of a new generation, as people felt a new excitement that had been missing since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. It was a spirit of youth and newness.

Here are two examples of Kennedy’s inspirational style: the inaugural address and his Berlin speech. 

Example 1: The Inaugural Address[11]

“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. …

Kennedy then went on to address his other audiences, those abroad, in the same hopeful way.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Kennedy appeals to his audience’s sense of patriotism here. It is sentimental but no less effective for that.

“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself”.

His appeal to the goodwill of Americans for their country was a central point of his speech. The two sentences below are remembered because of the build up of the speech towards this point. Probably without the build up, these two sentences would never have had the same impact.

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

  My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man”.

As the speech came to a natural close we heard his appeal to God, which is part of every American politician’s repartee:

“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, knowing that here on earth God’s work must surely be our own.”

To the audience on that day, this was a powerful emotional speech. If we look at the wording above, we can see how idealistic the language is. It is a language style that can move almost everyone, even the most cynical among us. Indeed, it was visionary rhetoric in the same tradition as Bourke Cochran’s, the New York Congressman on whom Winston Churchill had modelled his speech style during the Second World War.[12] Visionary rhetoric is built on the imagination and is partly utopian. It motivates audiences to think what may be possible. It raises people’s hearts to make efforts to achieve this end. It gives that security that their present efforts are not in vain.

Example 2: The Berlin Speech[13]

Again this same motivational style comes through in his Berlin speech in 1962. The language of “action” must always be present in visionary appeals, as we are persuading our audience to do something in the future or to keep on doing something they are doing now. The Berlin speech is an example of Kennedy at his best. To deliver such a speech, one needs not only to master the mix of the languages of feeling and action, but to have credibility (ethos) as well. Without credibility, none of this is possible. His position as President of the United States, his image as a representative of a new generation of leaders, and the circumstances, gave him this credibility. When we have this credibility, we can use visionary language to motivate our audience, and they will respond as they responded to Kennedy in Berlin. He could sell a dream.

The speech was perhaps the most famous piece of oratory of the Cold War. More than a million West Berliners had gathered to hear the US president, and they responded with a great roar of approval.

There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin.

There are some who say that Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin.

And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.

And there are even a few who say that it is true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.

Let us look for a moment to illustrate this at the last sentence of his Berlin speech, which epitomizes the language of ‘feeling’.

“All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner”.

Kennedy left his message in Europe, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free”.

Turning controversy to your advantage

One of the principal signs of a good communicator is the ability to turn an argument to one’s advantage. Here is one early example of Kennedy’s ability to do this from his Senate campaign. His Republican opponent, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., used a compelling slogan against the Kennedy campaign, which read as follows:

“Had enough shortages?

 Had enough inflation?

 Had enough strikes?

 Had enough communism?”[14]

The insinuation was clear, that Kennedy was soft on communism. This would certainly attract the Catholic vote to the Republicans. But Jack Kennedy was clever about this one, and did not try to refute it. He knew very well that many of the electorate in Massachusetts were anti-communist at heart. So he just went one step further than the Republicans. In his broadcast over the Boston radio, he wholeheartedly agreed with the Republicans, and then went on to fiercely denounce communism as the biggest evil threatening mankind. His speech not only neutralized the Republican attack but left their message sounding rather pale in comparison to his attack. He became identified with his anti communist stance after this.

Lessons to be learnt

         Kennedy, like any contender for the presidency, had obstacles to overcome. In Kennedy’s case, his health, his religion, his youth, and his lack of experience with dealing with party bosses, were, perhaps, his main obstacles.  But let’s look at these from a communication standpoint.

The first communication lesson is the effective use of silence on drawbacks. The true state of Kennedy’s health was buried in secrecy.  Most likely he would never have received the nomination had the party bosses known. In 1954 Kennedy went through a number of spinal operations and between 1955 and 1957 he was hospitalized nine times. But nobody spoke about it because very few knew about it, even though he was a high profile senator. Even his opponents, Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., who was now Nixon’s running mate, did not know the extent of it.

The second communication lesson is the ability to accept a problem and then to go on and show that it is not really a problem at all. The Kennedy family was Catholic, and this potentially was a difficult one in the 1950s. Of course, today this is not a serious problem, but fifty years ago people thought differently. He made many references in his speeches and interviews to this question, and accepted that he was different from other presidential candidates. But he managed to disarm his opponents by emphasizing what he had in common with everyone else, and that this difference was a secondary issue. Perhaps this is illustrated most in his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960 just before his election.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. Whatever one’s religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts – including the first Amendment and the strict separation of church and state.”.[15]

The third communication lesson was how he built his credibility in the mind of the electorate. He built his personal and professional credibility by showing his intellectual status, his wartime patriotism, his service in Congress and the Senate, and, finally, his domestic stability as a family man (his daughter Caroline was born in November 1957). When Kennedy began his track to the White House he was just under forty. He opponents claimed he was too young. He didn’t have the experience or maturity to make the right decisions. These were genuine concerns. However, this did not deter him, and his campaign people continuously pointed to the following:-

  • His knowledge and experience of foreign affairs. Americans saw this as invaluable in meeting difficulties abroad.
  • The prestige of winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 which gave him the stamp of a serious writer and even a reputation for wisdom.
  • A heavy emphasis was put on his war history. Everyone knew of his wartime experience and it stood him in good stead. He had received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the Purple Heart, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War 11 Victory Medal.

Finally, the fourth communication lesson was how he learnt the importance of networking. He had learnt from his failure to get the Vice Presidency nomination the mistake of ignoring the party bosses and failing to negotiate with them. People say that experience is the best teacher in life. We all need a certain degree of humility to learn, but humility had never been one of Kennedy’s noted character traits. However, he did learn from his experience with Stevenson. He knew why he failed to get the Vice-Presidency nomination (a task, incidentally, he tried to achieve partly from his sick bed) in 1956.

Some Non-verbal Communication Pointers

The importance of non-verbal language for orators such as Kennedy cannot be over-emphasized. Robert Cialdini in his book on “Influence” tells us that people like others who are similar to themselves. He goes on to tell us that research shows that good-looking people have the advantage in social interaction. There is a body of research dating back over the last fifty years to support this contention. Other studies tells us that we automatically assign to good-looking people such favourable traits as talent, kindness, honesty and intelligence. Furthermore the research shows that when we make judgments about these people we are not even conscious if they are good-looking or not. We just automatically give them the benefit.[16]

Cialdini further tells us that people who create positive associations for themselves are also liked. In the case of Kennedy, with his all-American Ivy League image, people found they could identify with him positively. Many felt him similar to themselves and had little problem with him being the party’s candidate. Of course, others did not make this association, due to other influences.

So, from a communication point of view, physical attractiveness and similarity of outlook, combined with networking among the party bosses, partly helped him to secure the nomination. This networking included such influential personalities as Mayor Daley of Chicago, who controlled the large Illinois delegation. Without his support, Kennedy could never have made it at the convention.


Body language, tonality and content

One of the obvious places to see Kennedy using his particular mix of the language of feelingand actionwas during his election campaign. His speech style during the campaign was becoming more and more inspirational. People saw him as new, youthful and generally attractive; a change from the old grey-suited Eisenhower people. This newness was best seen in the T.V. debates with the then current vice president, Richard Nixon; it was where the communication process was demonstrated best. By this I mean the effective use of body language, tonality and content.

These debates are interesting from a language point of view, as Nixon, with his steady strong voice, relied heavily on his experience and his concrete proposals of what he would do. Nixon’s voice, at times, along with his stiff body language, appeared to make him like a lawyer reading out a list of proposals (in fact, Nixon was a lawyer). He looked and sounded somewhat boring on T.V. He clearly spoke a language where ‘meaning’ dominated, and his attempts to use the language of ‘feeling’ effectively never really took off.

Content, according to researchers Michael McCaskey and Peter Thompson, [17]makes up only 7% of the communication process when people are visibly interacting (such as on T.V.), the other 93% being devoted to aspects other than words: voice, intonation, and such non-verbal behavior as facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and body language. This figure of 93% can be broken down as –

 Paralinguistic (voice, intonation, pitch, tone)      = 38%

Non-verbal language (body language)                  = 55%

 Although Nixon obviously made great efforts, he was unable to use a language mix where “feeling” dominated. Consequently, he was perceived as less attractive than Kennedy even to many of those who voted for him.

In the autumn of 1959, Kennedy and the Vice-president debated four times. It was a clash of styles. It was here that we find Kennedy at times being forced out of his comfort zone and into the language of ‘meaning’, which wasn’t his forte, although, as it turned out, he was well able to hold his own.

Many commentators have remarked that for those people listening to the debates on the radio, Nixon had the edge. In radio broadcasting, listeners can concentrate on content and tone more easily than when they can observe the speaker visibly.  Voice and tonality are important on television but not as important as body language. It is body language that one gets the feeling of a speaker’s spirit. Kennedy communicated a greater degree of likeability, youth and imagination, which eventually gave him the edge with his audiences over Nixon’s more restrained style.

Nixon’s language, being more akin to that of ‘meaning’, explains why some radio audiences gave him the vote of confidence. But on television, where body language counts for more than tonality and content, Kennedy communicated a charisma, which Richard Nixon was unable to do. It is little wonder, therefore, that the audiences gave Kennedy their vote of confidence, just as a previous audience had done in the West Virginia debate.


There are many historians, such as Stephen Graubard, who have written extensively on Kennedy, pointing out all his faults and inconsistencies and lamenting the passing of the Cabot Lodges of this world. Such writers attack Kennedy’s legislative record and find character flaws. They play down the inspirational message that he communicated to the hearts of many people. They use the language of ‘meaning’, by asking what legislation exactly was passed during the 1,000 days of the Kennedy presidency.  Then they normally go on to compare the amount of legislation which was passed during the whole of the Johnson years with Kennedy’s 1,000 days in office.

The civil rights law, they say, was conceived by Robert Kennedy and finalized by Lyndon Johnson. They claim Jack Kennedy was dishonest in not disclosing his full health problems; a sign of a lack of professional integrity. They then usually get on to his extramarital affairs and come up with the list, ending it with Marilyn Monroe. Finally they enter the world of prophecy and boldly prophesy that Kennedy’s presidency would have solved none of the problems of the day. They argue that his reputation was undeserved, especially because of his extramarital affairs.

Yet Kennedy communicated something that neither Eisenhower nor Johnson, nor anyone else of that generation, could communicate, the hope of a new generation. He was a master of the language of ‘feeling’. His wasn’t a tangible vision, but an image that gave leadership and hope. We have only to return to his trip to Berlin to see this, when the city streets were packed with cheering crowds from all social and educational backgrounds. He didn’t have a concrete solution, but by his oratory he communicated hope and a spirit from which a future solution could emerge. This, in my opinion, is where his genius as an orator lay.

Theodore Sorenson in an interview by David Gergen on NewsHour, was asked the question, “How do you compare Bill Clinton as an orator to John Kennedy?” Sorenson replied “I think Bill Clinton is a superb communicator, in some ways better one-to-one than John Kennedy was. Kennedy was shyer and more reticent than people realize. But I still take John Kennedy’s oratory.”[18]

 General References

Dallek, Robert. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, Penguin Books, 2004

Graubard, Stephen. The Presidents, Penguin Books, 2004

Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Quill Books, 1992

Leggett, Brian. Developing your Persuasion Edge, EUNSA 2006

Thompson, Peter, Persuading Aristotle, Kogan Page, 1999

McCaskey, Michael. The Hidden Messages Managers Send, Harvard Business Review, Nov.–Dec., 1979.


[1] This case traces the growth of John F. Kennedy’s inspirational communication style which has left an indelible impression on the minds of many people throughout the world, even some forty years after his assassination. The case is recounted from selected sources with an emphasis on communication issues and is not intended to be a political analysis of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.


[3] Dallek, pp. 123-124

[4] Dallek, p. 124

[5] Dallet, pp.123-124

[6] Graubard, pp. 405-406

[7] John F. Kennedy Presidential Library,

[8] Dallek, p.244

[9] Harvey Wheeler,



[12] “The earth is a Generous Mother”, Churchill and Bourke Cochrane,

[13], see also Dallek, 453

[15] Speech Greater Houston Ministerial Association

[16] See Cialdini for a full discussion on the influence of  non-communication on the communication process

[17] This question is dealt thorough in McCaskey, Michael. The Hidden Messages Managers Send.