19 January 2011

50 years since John F Kennedy asked not... (2) Which lines were noticed on the day?

This is the second in a series of posts to mark the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy's inaugural speech in 1961, the first of which was 'Sounds of silence.'

My first book on public speaking described the main rhetorical techniques that trigger applause in political speeches (Our Masters' Voices, 1984), the story of which can be found in the Claptrap series (HERE).

It included a chapter on 'Quotability', which looked at how the lines that get applauded are much more likely to be noticed and reported in the media that those that don't - and that a tiny minority of these are remembered long enough to end up in dictionaries of quotations.

Given the central role of Barack Obama's oratory as he emerged from nowhere via the DNC in 2004 through an inspiring election campaign to become US president, I was intrigued to see various commentators complaining that his inaugural speech wasn't up to his usual standard. For one thing, the critics said, it was a bit short on memorable quotes compared with JKF's masterful effort back in 1961.

This intrigued me enough to check back on the front pages of two leading American newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post to see which lines from Kennedy's inaugural speech had been quoted on their front pages the following day (21 January 1961).

To my surprise, the answer was none of them (HERE), even though quite a few of Kennedy's inaugural lines lines not only made it into dictionaries of quotations, but will be aired again this week as the media get into the swing of commemorating the speech's 5oth anniversary.

The audience got it right
But if you look at the lines that were applauded by the audience who where actually there on the day (see video sequence above and transcript below), you'll see that they did a rather better job than some of the media when it came to spotting the lines that were eventually to become 'memorable'.

Those in Washington that day were sufficiently moved by eleven of the things Kennedy said to react with a positive physical response (applause). And, I predict, you'll certainly have seen many or most of them before - in which case, it supports the point made about the connection between clapping and quotability in Our Master's Voices.

The power of contrasts
Given the emphasis in my teaching and writing on the effectiveness of different types of contrast in the armoury of rhetorical techniques, an added bonus for me is that contrasts featured in about half of the examples that were applauded - including some of the most famous quotations of all.

Where did the tiger come from?
In the midst of Kennedy's flourishes of imagery in some of these lines, there's one that still puzzles me. The audience would presumably not have applauded if they hadn't both understood and approved of what he meant when he said "those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside."

But to my British ears, it's always struck me as the oddest metaphor in the speech and my attempts to find out where it came from have so far been unsuccessful. If any readers can enlighten me, it would be great to hear from you.

P.S. More on the tiger
Thanks to the reader who replied with this email:

"I think Kennedy was alluding to Churchill's remark: 'the dictators ride to and fro on tigers they dare not dismount and the tigers are getting hungry.' I wish I could find out when and where he said it. I wonder if it was a speech in the USA."

Can anyone else help on this?

Text of applauded lines
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.

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.

To those new states whom we welcome
to the ranks of the free,
we pledge our word
that one form of colonial control
shall not have passed away
merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny.
We shall not always expect to find them
supporting our view.
But we shall always hope to find them
strongly supporting their own freedom-
-and to remember that, in the past,
those who foolishly sought power
by riding the back of the tiger
ended up inside.

To those people
in the huts and villages
of half the globe
struggling to break the bonds of mass misery,
we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves,
for whatever period is required—
not because the communists may be doing it,
not because we seek their votes,
but because it is right.
If a free society
cannot help the many who are poor,
it cannot save the few who are rich.

Let all our neighbors know
that we shall join with them
to oppose aggression or subversion
in the Americas.
And let every other power know
that this Hemisphere intends to remain
the master of its own house.

So let us begin anew—
remembering on both sides
that 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.

Let both sides, for the first time,
formulate serious and precise proposals
for the inspection and control of arms—
and bring the absolute power
to destroy other nations
under the absolute control of all nations.

All this will not be finished
in the first one hundred days.
Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days,
nor in the life of this Administration,
nor even perhaps in our lifetime
on this planet.
But let us begin.

Can we forge against these enemies
a grand and global alliance,
North and South,
East and West,
that can assure a more fruitful life
for all mankind?
Will you join in that historic effort?

In the long history of the world,
only a few generations
have been granted the role
of defending freedom
in its hour of maximum danger.
I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it.

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.


Julien said...

Max -

Reading your blog has been an excellent way to distract myself in the last few days!

I wonder whether this (or an earlier version) was the source of the tiger metaphor:

There was a young lady of Riga
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

All the best


Anonymous said...

The unfortunate and lasting legacy of the speech was the continuation of Teddy Roosevelt's "big stick" -- "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, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty". Our adventures in Vietnam and the Middle East by subsequent presidents were/are disasters.

jindi said...

Moving Boxes
Who remembers what happened on that day? It was November 22, 1961, at about 1 PM CT. I was across the ocean in another country serving my country and standing watch just west of the Iron Curtain.