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The inaugural address is the first speech Americans hear from their newly elected President. Kennedy was a man of personal pride so he took much time to prepare for speeches. Between the election and his inauguration Kennedy worked side-by-side with his closest advisor and speechwriter Theodore Sorenson. While most presidents did not write their own speeches, especially during his time, Kennedy saw the advantages to preparing for his speeches to make them more effective.
“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, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
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"Biography of John F. Kennedy." 123HelpMe.com. 20 Feb 2019
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With these first, firm, and frank words Kennedy was able to grab the audiences attention and communicate his stance of where he believed America was in the world, as well as what it stood for. Kennedy’s ability to communicate with a mass audience was unrivaled at the time and he polished this trait often because he was aware of the support to be gained when ideas were effectively communicated. He then ended his speech with a challenge to ignite a fire under the American people and those around the world to follow the vision set forth in his opening statements as Commander in Chief.
“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.”
Projecting a vision of a progressing America and a progressing world, Kennedy chose to test literally everyone in the globe by telling them to think of others, rather than themselves. The vision of an even more free country and a less hostile world was conceivable to Kennedy and throughout his time in office he gained support as well as action from those he was leading.
Though tragically short-lived, Kennedy’s stint as leader of the free world was packed with foreign relations affairs that tested the President’s abilities manage crises. Akin to how catholic infants are baptized, JFK received a baptism by fire in the infancy of his tenure as President. The Bay of Pigs incident took place a mere three months after Kennedy took office; it has often been referred to as “the perfect failure”(Barnes). The miscalculations and errors of judgment pile up against JFK in this incident, but it is how these blunders affected Kennedy afterwards that is noteworthy. After more than one thousand Cuban exiles had been captured and the cause was obviously lost, Kennedy owned up to his mistake. Stating that “victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan” Kennedy took on the responsibilities of his decision(Salinger). The following morning the President woke to find that his approval rating had soared to eighty-three percent(Barnes). Due to his honesty and sense of accountability, the American people trusted their leader and accepted his fault believing he would learn from his mistakes. That is precisely what Kennedy did as he went to the root of the problem and reassessed his decision making process. Upon arrival to the White House, the staff of advisers was already in place, most of which he hardly knew which made the President uneasy about pressing them to hard with direct questions. He chose to dismantle this staff and establish a new staff with his younger brother Robert at the helm. With his authority, he broadened the scope of his closest advisers while simply letting others go. Surrounding himself with people he personally knew, JFK felt it would be more conducive to objective and open debate. Kennedy took another measure to rectify the situation by inviting the Cuban exiles, which he vigorously negotiated the release of, to the Orange Bowl to here him speak. Some felt it was politically dangerous fearing Kennedy might be booed by the exiles; but he did speak, feeling it was the right thing to do. The exiles were nothing short of enthusiastic as the President took the stage and had his wife translate in Spanish the words he wished to convey. Kennedy made the very best of a very bad situation, which allowed his ability to lead to gleam through. Americans were able to get their first glimpse of the qualities that possessed them to follow: honesty, accountability, openness to change, learning, and obligation.
“A man does what he must—in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures—and that is the basis of all human morality”(Kennedy). The trait of courage was the trait Kennedy admired most in individuals, and he used the words above to describe the quality in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage. He exemplified this trait just as well, if not better, than the figures he researches in his book. Before JFK’s political career began his courage was put to the fire in the PT-109 incident. PT’s were small but swift boats used by the Navy during WWII; JFK was Lieutenant of the PT-109. On a mission that went awry west of the Solomon Islands PT-109 was struck by a ship. Kennedy swam to crewmember Harris and pulled him to safety first, even joking along after he was safe on the wreckage. Jack then stripped down to his underwear, dove back into the chilly waters and pulled an older “Pappy” McMahon to the wreckage utilizing a belt he had clamped in his mouth. Finding land and food, and often swimming for miles at a time in search of help Kennedy continued his acts of courage while keeping a level head. Finally, seven days later, the sailors were rescued and the PT-109 incident would be a staple of Kennedy’s political career for years to come. Examining the episode closer, it is easy to see that Kennedys own definition of courage is mirrored with how he lived his life. Kennedy did not hesitate to put himself in harms way to help the others that were in need, a sure sign of a leader that was invested in those he lead. Those he lead also followed because of his demeanor. Kennedy did not waver in the face of adversity, therefore the calm and collected poise he demonstrated allowed his sailors to put their trust in him; because he was not worried, they were not worried.
It is awe inspiring to think that a man crippled with excruciatingly painful Addison’s disease and was often confined to crutches could posses such a diverse set of the aforementioned leadership abilities. What is even more astounding is the smooth fluidity in which Kennedy integrated these characteristics into his everyday life. JFK carried himself with the dignity of a king, yet leveled himself with the plebian. No President since Kennedy has inspired the masses as he did, for it seemed to be innately in him to do so. While leadership can be learned and polished to near perfection, there still stands reason to say that some are born-leaders. With speeches that resonated vision, foreign relations that required comprehensive qualities, and acts of courage that epitomized his own definition of the word, JFK established himself as one of the most eclectic leaders in the twentieth-century.
Salinger, Pierre. Commander in Chief: A Profile in Leadership. New York: Gramercy Books, 2000.
Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage. New York: Perennial Classics, 2004.
Barnes, John A. John F. Kennedy on Leadership. New York: Amacon, 2005.