Critical Essay 2: Examining the Effectiveness of 2 Landmark Presidential Speeches of the 20th Century

The art of speechmaking is a complex undertaking. Communicating a message to an audience is no simple task. Even more complex is the art of addressing a nation as the leader of the Free World. Presidential speeches are the highlights of history books. They capture America at some of her most pivotal moments and leaders at some of their most defining. In Media Politics speechmaking is characterized as “a relatively recent form of presidential leadership” (Iyengar). Nonetheless it is an important one. Communicating to the people, in order to gain their support and understanding for promoting policy initiatives, declarations of war, crisis management, and diplomatic efforts is a crucial pillar of governing a nation as a leader.

In order to deem what constitutes an effective speech, it is best to look at a two of the most famous Presidential speeches of the 20th century and examine them objectively. Below we will examine excerpts of two iconic speeches delivered by two of the greatest orator Presidents in United States history. We will examine these speeches and determine why they are effective in arousing a nation in two different historical contexts:

  1. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”- FDR (First Inaugural Address)



When Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his famous First Inaugural Address in 1933, the country’s unemployment rate that year would reach a staggering 24.9%(). America’s economy was on its last leg and people were in desperate need for some form of hope. Roosevelt was elected on a promise to overhaul the government and the American economy with a primary mission of getting people back to work. In order to do this Roosevelt knew he would have to make his case before the American people and explain to them how he planned on resolving the crisis of the Great Depression. His first official interaction with the American people, his inaugural address, acted as Roosevelt’s sounding board on his plan to save the country.

Roosevelt sets the tone of his speech early on, supplying his audience with a needed voice of authority and confidence. He states,” this great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Once his tone of confidence is established, a clear ploy of both pathos and ethos, Roosevelt transitions his approach to one invoking primarily logos as he outlines his plan to deal with the problems at hand. He spearheads his initiative by outlining distinct steps to what must be done in order to combat the economic crisis there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency”.

While Roosevelt’s process of tackling the problem is based in logos, his identification of the moral flaws of what lies behind these structural problems is one rooted in emotion. He attacks the system of greed that caused the Depression and identifies it as what also must be overcome in order to revive the country through powerful appeals to pathos. Roosevelt states, the measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit…Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits.”

By utilizing the three major rhetorical devices logos, pathos, and ethos in his speech, Roosevelt embodies the essence of a strong and intelligent leader with a plan to overcome crisis. In one of America’s darkest times, Roosevelt was able to establish himself as a leader strong enough to overcome the challenges America faced simply through the power of his words.

  1. “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You, Ask What You Can Do for Your Country”- JFK (Inaugural Address)



John F. Kennedy entered his Presidency with a whirlwind of media attention. As the country shifted from radio to television as its primary form of media the handsome President and his attractive family catered perfectly to the cameras. But it was more than just looks that was behind such a sensation. Surrounding JFK was an aura of not only youth and celebrity but also hope. He was known to empower and inspire people through his impressive oratory skills at a time when the country needed such a leader to rally behind. America, the beacon of Western Democracy, was engaged in both an ideological and militarized Cold War against the Communist Soviet Union. People lived in a constant state of paranoia, fearing that civilization as they knew it could be destroyed in a matter of seconds due to a constant threat of nuclear war.

Kennedy recognizes this theme throughout his first and only Inaugural Address stating, The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” Kennedy sought to quell such paranoia, however, with a message of reassuring hope that American global leadership made strong by the values of American Democracy and through active participation of the American people in their democracy, would triumph at the end of the day by promoting peace and liberty around the globe. In line with such a message, Kennedy states , 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.”

At the same time Kennedy thought it possible that America could seek reconciliation with the Soviet Union on the grounds of human peace. In several instances during his address Kennedy outlines such a wish. He makes the following case,Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us… Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.”

Yet Kennedy reminds his audience that such a task is accomplished via a collective effort, an effort that originates from the people, and is made possible thanks to the beauty of the democratic system. Kennedy empowers his audience by challenging them to this call of contributing to not only the greater good of the country, but the greater good of the world. He states: 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. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. 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.”

Kennedy’s strength as a leader much so derived from his strengths as a speaker. A visionary, he was able to inspire others to share his vision, and mobilize them into taking action and materializing the ideals he brought to life in his speeches. His only inaugural address is perhaps the best example of this, for many elements of his speech later materialized into action. During Kennedy’s short time in office the United States avoided all out nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis thanks to Kennedy’s level head and ability to communicate. Also during his term, after inspiring many young Americans with his call to service in saying “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country” thousands of Americans joined Kennedy’s Peace Corps in hopes of bettering the world. Other great strides later on in the decade, including American achievements in the Space Race and the passage of the Civil Rights Act also can be traced back to Kennedy’s visionary idealism first communicated in his Inaugural Address.

Both speeches, and for that matter both speakers, although different share a great deal in common. The first being that FDR and JFK were effective figures of hope because they inspired hope in others through their words. They lead through their words and their vision for a greater country by inspiring others to share such a vision and materialize it into a reality. They emulated strength by helping others find strength through unity as a nation. They embodied confidence by helping others find confidence in American Democracy and American values. Most of all, they successfully deployed rhetoric as a tool of leadership: not just as a form of communicating a message, but seeing to it that a message could transform a country into something greater than it was before. That in essence is effective rhetorical leadership. That is why, these two speeches are considered to be amongst the two greatest Presidential speeches in American history, and these two Presidents amongst the greatest speakers and leaders in history.

Works Cited

“Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You!” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2014. “F.D.R.’s First Inaugural Speech: Nothing to Fear.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

Iyengar, Shanto.Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print. “”Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself”:

FDR’s First Inaugural Address.” “Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself”: FDR’s First Inaugural Address. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2014. “Unemployment Statistics during the Great Depression.”

Unemployment Statistics during the Great Depression. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2014. John F. Kennedy: “Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1961. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

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