People in America and further a-field were looking for a vision of future: they got it. But in the end it asked for more than that -“ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.” Now that’s good: what a way to finish. There’s even a wee jag in the peroration about standards and sacrifices expected of politicians. It could be dusted off and delivered today.
Here is where the media savvy politician of the modern age all started: The charismatic, telegenic politician we all want to sound like, look like, and be like (he was also, eventually, immortalised as Mayor Quimby in The Simpsons).
“The world is very different now.” is not one of the more poetic cadences of this speech, but it is one of the most important. It is simple: a child could instantly understand it. Kennedy tells us we have the power to create or destroy anything, including the planet itself, and it is up to us to decide what to do with that power because “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” It is here he starts to set the listener up for his conclusion, where he asks them to reflect on what they can do: a nice technique that tells his audience that the future is as much their responsibility as it is his.
Throughout he talks about what will have to be endured, and that they will endure it “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe…” This is a punchy and rhythmic list that is a warning to the world America is not to be trifled with. It’s almost Churchillian in its stoicism.
Kennedy uses contrasts between good and evil, right and wrong, strength and weakness. They are a feature of this speech and give a poetic lyricism to this part of the address. Best examples are “where the instruments of war we have far outpaced the instruments of peace”, and “civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
Another interpretation of that last line might be a technique that many good influencers have used throughout the ages: be hard on the problem but soft on the people.
And just past half way, we have the repetition of “Let both sides...” which creates a great rhythm for Kennedy’s voice, which is a little too high in pitch on occasion (he’ll be nervous, because though he became a very effective public speaker, he never liked it). I t is all a bit loud and forced for the first few minutes, but it’s better to be a bit too loud than too quiet. More use of the lower register at the end of sentences, and when he does his lists, would be better for his delivery. Listen to Obama, who comes down at the end of his points pretty much every time to great effect. He does it well with his “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside”. He gets a laugh here, though it’s not a great laugh-line. It’s in there primarily as a bit of a warning and a threat not to get too close to those who might devour you given a chance. I wonder who he meant.
And now to a bit of a key change; “But let us begin” which actually signals an end. It looks odd if you see the text of the speech; probably could have been a paragraph all on it’s own, but what it does is signal in the speech is a change point: Here he is signalling that he’s done telling what his plans are, and now it’s time for everyone to get to work. It’s the equivalent of picking up your papers at the end of a meeting and putting your pen in your pocket. And he tells his countrymen, particularly again the younger ones, that’s it’s all down to them, not him. So he’s looking over the speech with these words, and forward to the future of the country. And of course it facilitates the “ask not what your country…” line, too.
Kennedy invokes God at the beginning and the end; it’s par for the course in American politics, and signals that he is speaking not just to Americans but citizens of the world at the start and finish, too. Covers a lot of ground, gives a lot of hope and inspiration.
And you know what? It’s only just over five minutes.
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