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John F. Kennedy Jr. inaugurated as president 50 years ago

January 20, 2011 - WASHINGTON DC

When John F. Kennedy Jr. was sworn in as 35th United States president on 20 Jan 1961, he commanded Americans in his inaugural address to: ask not what your country can do for you [to] ask what you can do for your country. The 50th anniversary invites new scrutiny of the 35th president's legacy, comparisons with the 44th president, comparisons of their inaugural speeches, and the parsing of Kennedy's speech for relevance to today's issues -- and particularly for its rhetorical flourishes. One, in the passage above, is a form of chiasmus called antimetabole.

When John F. Kennedy Jr. was sworn in as 35th United States president on 20 Jan 1961, he commanded Americans in his inaugural address to "ask not what your country can do for you [to] ask what you can do for your country." The 50th anniversary invites new scrutiny of the 35th president's legacy, comparisons with the 44th president, comparisons of their inaugural speeches, and the parsing of Kennedy's speech for relevance to today's issues -- and particularly for its rhetorical flourishes. One, in the passage above, is a form of chiasmus called antimetabole. A Times newspaper headline on 18 Feb 2008 described the 44th president, Barack Obama, as "a John Kennedy for our times." One of many exercises for analysts on the anniversary will be reviewing the performance in office of both men, and asking whether the comparison is apt. The anniversary also invites a comparison of the speeches. Made at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Kennedy's speech features other famous passages. The quote, "Now the trumpet summons us again . . . against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself," suggests little on a US president's plate has changed in 50 years. Analysts are likely to find in Obama's inauguration speech on 20 Jan 2009 echoes of Kennedy's attitude to external threats. Kennedy's war was Vietnam. He supported the &lsquoDomino Theory,' a common conviction of the time that if South Vietnam fell to communism, then other states in the region would fall as a consequence. Obama inherited a war, in Afghanistan, and he is prosecuting it with an escalation of force that suggests he is no less concerned about failure and consequences than Kennedy. Obama's speech could be described as darker, less lofty and less figurative than Kennedy's. After a brief salute to "My fellow citizens," Obama says: "The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms." The speech details the clouds and storms at length: "Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened . . . Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many [children] . . . Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights." Both men have reputations as distinguished orators, but rhetoricians will recognize speechwriting "tricks" in Kennedy's speech to make the ideas resonate that are mainly absent in Obama's. Chiasmus is defined as a rhetorical inversion of the second of two parallel structures. Antimetabole is when the same words are used but in reverse order. The "Ask what your country . . ." quote is regarded as the most recognizable antimetabole example in modern times. Imparting resonance to the sentence, the words in the first part are used again in the second part, but in mixed-up form.

John Kennedy inaugural speech (JFK Library)

Barack Obama&rsquos Inaugural Address (NYT 20 Jan 2009)

Barak Obama -- a John Kennedy for our times (Times 18 Feb 2008)

Date written/update: 2011-01-20