Presidents and Protesters: Political Rhetoric in the 1960s

By Theodore Otto Windt Jr. | Go to book overview

11. In these back-to-back speeches Kennedy boldly pointed to new directions for Americans in both foreign and domestic policy.

The confrontation at the University of Alabama was the last crisis Kennedy had to face in his short administration. Crisis rhetoric was now employed in the struggle for equal rights in America. But it should be remembered that what called forth this form of rhetoric at this time was not rioting on a university campus, nor a bombing of a black church, nor even the use of police dogs and water hoses against black demonstrators. Instead, the inciting incident was an act of defiance of federal authority by a southern governor. Nonetheless, Kennedy's speech aroused a nation and injected the moral force of the presidency into the civil rights movement. He presented his civil rights bill to the Congress and then watched the movement gather steam, culminating in the great march on Washington on August 28, 1963. Kennedy did not live to see the bill become law, but he had finally established the moral basis for it and for subsequent legislation that President Johnson would present and steer through Congress.40


Conclusion

This analysis of Kennedy's crises does not pretend to be a comprehensive study of President John E Kennedy's rhetoric. It has been limited to his speeches on important issues. It has also been an examination of how and why Kennedy used crisis rhetoric during the first two years of his administration, especially in foreign affairs, and then tried to replace it when it came to Soviet-American relations in the third year. In the civil rights arena, Kennedy reversed the pattern. He originally saw the struggle for equal rights in America as little more than another political issue to manage, usually through judicial means. But in the third year he changed course and elevated civil rights to the level of a moral crisis for American society. Overall, crisis became the rhetorical signature of his administration.

Kennedy's rhetoric was generally conceived and developed as a response, a reaction to situations. Often, in foreign affairs, it was a hysterical reaction, as in the case of the so-called Berlin crisis. But in a certain mystical way these crisis speeches also contributed to a sense of idealism on the part of the American people. Perhaps that was due to the association of crisis with risk, and of risk with idealism. Certainly, actions seem more important when they are taken in a time of "maximum danger" than when they are taken in a time of tranquility.

Kennedy set a political style for his administration that greatly

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