Fifty Years Later, Kennedy’s Inaugural Speech Still Resonates

20-Jan-2011 11:00 AM EST, by Rowan University

Newswise — Ever heard of a chiasmus? Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy used more than one chiasmus to great effect when he delivered his inaugural address, according to Rowan University Communication Studies Professor Daniel Schowalter.

“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” was one of the defining moments of the speech, a chiasmus delivered masterfully by Kennedy, says Schowalter, who teaches public speaking and rhetorical studies. The dictionary defines chiasmus as “a reversal in the order of words in two otherwise parallel phrases.”

“The ancient rhetoricians, especially Quintilian and Cicero, recognized thata true art of rhetoric--one that leads to virtue--required not only substancebut also rhetorical flare,” says Schowalter. “Kennedy’s speech exemplifies this ideal.”

Kennedy’s address, which also used metaphor effectively, was the most memorable inaugural speech since the 1950s, says Schowalter. Its poignancy resonates even today, he says.

“Although there have been great presidential speeches since, I can’t think of an inaugural since JFK’s that is as notable,” he says. “Kennedy made great use of rhetorical devices to get his message across.”

While Kennedy used his speech to reference our “forebears’ ideals” within the contexts of “renewal and change” and spoke strongly about Communist enemies in the names of “liberty” and “freedom” and “human rights,” he also made a significant call to service, Schowalter notes.

“The speech marked a shift in American politics toward international service and helping other countries help themselves. And, of course, a lasting legacy of the Kennedy administration was the Peace Corps,” says Schowalter.

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