U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Happy Birthday, Mr. President”: Reflections on John F. Kennedy and U.S. Intellectual History

Today, May 29th, is John F. Kennedy’s birthday. To celebrate this figure (who inspired me as a teenager in 2002/03 as powerfully as he inspired teenagers in 1962/63), I haven’t quite thrown him a Madison Square Garden gala, but I have examined ways in which U.S. intellectual historians might, in scholarship and teaching, make better use of his life, his thought, and his writing. President Kennedy has become something of a hackneyed trope in American history; his role in U.S. survey course syllabi is diminishing, and his appearance in historical scholarship is limited to political and diplomatic history. But John F. Kennedy was a thinker and a writer no less than any of U.S. intellectual historians’ favorite figures from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. His life experiences and political thought touch on some of the most important issues in American history, such as immigration, elite higher education, the meaning of religious freedom, the idea of an American “mission,” the meaning of America in an atomic age, the importance of art in public life, and the importance of public life in the American nation. If his has become cliche in American history, his name still means “America” from Senegal to Singapore; there are memorials to him all over the world. John Kennedy’s life, thought, global reception, and reception in America make him a fascinating figure for U.S. intellectual historians to examine, completely aside from the fact that happened, for 1,000 days of his life, to occupy the office of President of the United States. Furthermore, his always poetic public speeches are a delight to pour over, and should be a useful tool for introducing students to rigorous historical analysis of texts.

Do you often assign political speeches in undergraduate courses? Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural are almost ubiquitous in surveys, and I’ve found that Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” is also common, as is Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Strenuous Life.” But I am interested to know if anyone has structured an undergraduate course around public speeches.

For intellectual historians, the speeches on record in the Congressional Globe provide some of the most thrilling rhetoric and wide range of ideas expressed in the antebellum debate over slavery. In the 20th century, speeches from cross-country political and religious circuits, speeches printed and reprinted in newspapers, speeches delivered on street corners before sweatshop workers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, speeches broadcast on the radio, impromptu speeches from the tops of cop-cars on University campuses– all represented a public, powerful way of coming to terms with or trying to direct American experience through language. The “online speech bank” at americanrhetoric.com is an excellent resources for scholars and teachers, containing hundreds of American speeches from the late 19th and 20th centuries with audio and visual media when possible.

I recommend taking a second (or third, or fourth) look at John Kennedy’s inaugural address, his speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, his speech to the Massachusetts General Assembly, and his speech to the Houston Ministerial Association on the subject of his Catholicism (a speech Barack Obama aimed to copy in his address on race during the 2008 presidential campaign). Or just spend some time at americanrhetoric.com perusing their compilation of the 100 best speeches in 20th century America. The speeches listed there, from Richard Nixon’s to Ursula K. Le Guin’s, will start to sound as if they are speaking to each other, building a sense of an ‘American Rhetoric’ as a part of American thought, culture, and intellectual expression. I would like to see U.S. Intellectual historians examine rhetoric and speech-making to a greater degree.

In 2004, Thurston Clarke attempted a ‘Lincoln at Gettysburg‘ with Kennedy’s inaugural address, but his book, Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America lacks the complexity of Gary Will’s. There is more work to be done examining Kennedy as a writer and artist (alongside his friend and partner-in-writing Ted Sorenson) and the reception of his speeches. Using some of these speeches– or speeches in general, Kennedy’s and others– as tool to get students excited about asking historical questions of texts will be a fun and rewarding place to start.

In addition to John Kennedy the writer, there is John Kennedy the reader. This man read American history, political philosophy, Greek and Roman classics, and as much poetry as he could get his hands on. He read Barbara Tuchman and Sun Tzu, Tennyson and Shakespeare. The former informed his political decisions, the later his private thought. His speeches abound in Biblical and classical allusion. Despite the hundreds of carefully manufactured images of touch football and sailing, Kennedy was serious ill during much of his life, and spent a lot more time in bed or in a rocking chair (the best relief for his back) reading. How this American, who experienced war, held political responsibility, asked questions about racial justice and about the role of religion in American political life, who cared about literature and art as part of national character, read and how reading– particularly fiction and poetry– framed his experiences and worldview is a question worthy of historical investigation.

John Kennedy was many things. Cultural and intellectual historians often neglect to address him in their work on the 1930s, 40s, 50s, or 60s perhaps because they fear being accused of hagiography (which seems to happen whenever someone discusses JFK without attempting to slay the God), perhaps because they are not politically compelled by this Cold Warrior and moderate liberal, and perhaps because they believe their focus should be on intellectuals, writers, artists, consumers, soldiers, or “the average American,” not Presidents. But John Kennedy was an intellectual who experienced America in the mid-20th century and eloquently worked through his experiences, beliefs, and longings in writing. It is time U.S. intellectual historians reexamine him as thinker and writer.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Most presidents are–or, at least, act as–public intellectuals. Among their public actions are speeches, which convey ideas about the country and the world to a broad public. But I take it you want to make a case for Kennedy’s intellectual significance beyond that which one might make for, e.g., Truman, Ford, or either Bush.

    Part of the burden in making this case would involve establishing what JFK’s role was in writing his speeches. Speeches of modern presidents — unlike, say, the speeches of Lincoln — tend to be collective efforts. The conventional view of JFK’s inaugural address is that, like Kennedy’s second book Profiles in Courage, it was written by Ted Sorenson. This is, for example, Garry Wills’s opinion. Thurston Clarke argues that the inaugural address was principally written by JFK. Somewhat splitting the difference, Louis Menand, reviewing Clarke’s book for The New Yorker, writes that, on this issue, “Clarke is not quite as persuasive as he wants to be, but he is as persuasive as he needs to be.”

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I think if we are to use Presidential speeches to make strong claims about the intellectual significance of the men who delivered them (as opposed to noting the political and cultural power of their words, which in the case of Kennedy’s inaugural address seems undeniable) we need to be precise about their authorship.

  2. I wonder how much of this neglect is because of the intellectuals Kennedy surrounded himself with. While Kennedy was a gifted speaker, the corpus of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. – as well as his proximity to academic history – has made him the go to intellectual spokesman for the Kennedy administration. Other figures like Walt Rostow have become the voice of Kennedy’s foreign policy. I agree that intellectual historians need to spend more time examining Kennedy’s ideas, though I can’t help but wonder if the ideas of his intellectual spokesmen are overrepresented in recent intellectual histories.

  3. Not a Kennedy scholar by any means.

    Was recently reading some relevant things, however: 1) Daniel Horowitz on Vance Packard suggests that Kennedy and staff read Packard closely, took his warnings seriously (as did Tom Hayden)–would love to know if this is really true, and to what extent. 2) In a recent paper on labor union output restriction policies, I used several long JFK quotes to frame a discussion of the 1963 railroad strike and the end of a certain kind of workers’ control politics. Kennedy (or his writers) had a lot to say about automation, technological unemployment, etc. Oddly enough, it’s not that different from what Barry Goldwater was writing at the same time. It may be on the domestic macroeconomy side, in the early moments of cracks becoming visible in the Keynesian edifice–didn’t Galbraith call Kennedy a “reactionary Keynesian”?/isn’t there the famous quote to Nixon “Who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25?”– that we haven’t paid enough attention to Kennedy (or his writers) as a thinker.

  4. My understanding is that the origins of speechwriters can be traced back to Warren G. Harding’s administration. Arthur Schlesinger’s son Robert wrote an interesting book on the topic called White House Ghosts. I agree with Ben. I would be skeptical of using presidential speeches as a sign of intellectual prowess after Woodrow Wilson. It is a different matter if we are discussing the speeches of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Woodrow Wilson.

  5. John F. Kennedy’s most underrated speech is his June 1963 speech on civil rights. I like to show it to my students in my U.S. History II classes.

  6. Barbara Leaming in her book, “Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman,” makes the case that Kennedy’s political beliefs were shaped by the speeches and writings of Winston Churchill.

  7. kennedy in many was a teacher and a guider of public policy. too late maybe for civil rights but he did come around and teach some of the young people (like me) to understand and know poliices as they developed. explained and gave meaning to things his successors have denied, manipulated, and lied about. just look at the record

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