Inaugural Rhetoric


Try as I might to find a five-dumbbell example of recent political rhetoric, they seem to be in short supply these days.


Liz Cheney gave quite a good speech on the House floor when she was ejected from her position of party leadership a few weeks ago. But while that talk was full of passion and purpose, it lacked many of the elements associated with polished rhetoric.


Given that our current President and the last one are not known for their polished speaking styles, I decided to go back a few Presidencies to compare two leaders with genuine ways with words: Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. (It also helped that this analysis served as a case study in Critical Voter.)


Even if Reagan and Kennedy might seem far apart politically, it’s interesting to note the similarities between the inaugural speeches each man gave when they took the oath of office (you can see Kennedy’s here, and Reagan’s here).


Both are roughly the same length, for example (15+ minutes for Kennedy’s talk, 20+ for Reagan’s). If you took the time to listen to each address, I hope you noticed how a persuasive speech is arranged.


First, each candidate provided a brief Introduction which graciously thanked everyone present – including defeated political rivals – creating an ethos bond and stressing the importance of the moment without wasting time explaining to an already rapt audience why they should pay attention.


After that, the direction for each new administration was spelled out with facts, counters to potential objections, and logical argumentation. Finally, each speech crescendo towards memorable words (notably Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” show-stopper) or verbal images (Reagan’s invoking the sacrifice of a US soldier in World War I) mark the climax of the presentation.


Speaking of Kennedy’s “ask not…” phrase, if you recall that’s become the iconic example of chiasmus, the most powerful rhetoric device of them all.


Kennedy actually used this device twice, saying earlier in his inaugural: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate,” in reference to his strategy of balancing resoluteness with diplomacy when dealing with the nation’s enemies. And his original “Ask not what your country can do for you…” sentiment was followed with a wider appeal (“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.”) which drew on the power of his original chiasmus to create one of the most memorable closers in political history.


Reagan tended to make less use of classical rhetorical flourishes, preferring a story-telling style that was clearly successful in helping him create an ethos bond with the public. That said, his inaugural address was not without linguistic flair, with some phrases (notably: “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” and “We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around”) long remembered due to their ability to capture wider themes in compact (and almost chiasmus-like) phrases.


Despite the fact that both Kennedy and Reagan were controversial Presidents during their time in office (and can still gin up heated emotions in some people decades after they left the political scene and the world), their popularity is often attributed to an optimism that even critics acknowledge. This is a telling compliment which goes a long way towards explaining the popularity of each man. For while one can be appreciative of the past, one is optimistic about the future. Which is why, rhetorically speaking, both Presidents’ optimism is reflected in the deliberative nature of their arguments delivered largely in the future tense.


Are you hesitant to draw such a parallel between opposing icons of liberal and conservative American leadership? Well if the first one of these two lines (each of which is taken from the inaugural addresses we’ve been discussing) didn’t include a reference to the economy (Reagan’s priority throughout most of his speech), could you tell who spoke which words?


“The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away.”


“All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”


Again, Kennedy’s version of this future oriented sentiment (#2) is better crafted than Reagan’s. But both provided readers/listeners/viewers hope that the future would be brighter than a troubling present.


Finally, as much as we see great leaders of the past through a prism of their accomplishments, that should not lead us to assume everyone who came after them is inferior in every way – including in the ways of rhetoric.


For example, it’s hard not to come away from reading Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address without feeling a little uncomfortable about the tribal appeal he makes which sets “us” (the suffering American people) against “them” (the greedy and irresponsible financiers and industrialists who had ruined the nation’s economy).


In contrast, John F. Kennedy – while not ignoring specific threats (such as those from the Soviet Union and its allies) identified our fight as being: “a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” And while Reagan frequently complained about government and other elites, his speeches avoided hostile “we vs. they” narratives in favor of inclusive sentiments (such as “Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God.”).


As a final thought, while most rhetoricians would give Kennedy the nod as the superior of the two speakers (a reasonable judgement, especially if you look at the full range of both leaders' political oratory), in comparing these two inaugural addresses I found Reagan to have more successfully communicated to his audience the specific vision he was ready to enact (something Kennedy’s brilliant but vaguer inaugural address did not do, which might explain why his presidency took longer to get out of the gate).


I was also pleased to see that Reagan’s speech contained a decent and identifiable argument (something that didn’t jump out at me from Kennedy’s). The statement, which appears early in his speech and justifies his vision for smaller national government, says:


From time to time, we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?


If you want to see this argument in a more formal structure, it might look like:


Premise 1: Some think that society has become so complex that it is now impossible for people to manage their own lives.

Premise 2: Given this complexity, the nation needs to be ruled by a government made up of elite people.

Premise 3: Elite people are people.


Conclusion: Since people (elite or otherwise) cannot manage their own lives, they cannot manage the lives of others.


Now this is not an unassailable argument (one can challenge it as lacking validity, soundness, or both). But try shooting it down without coming off as an anti-democratic snob.


At the very least, that exercise should teach you the lesson that logic, argumentation, and rhetoric are not distinct phenomena but rather form vital interconnecting components of what you should now be able to identify as persuasive communication (which you should also be equipped to analyze through an application of critical thinking).