Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Obama and JFK: Inaugural Address

Many people have been rather perplexed over many years by my strong affinity for John Fitzgerald Kennedy. They tend to look at my collection of JFK books and shake their heads and shrug their shoulders in a way that does not suggest in any manner that they understood what the collection is all about. Not that it bothers me in the least bit.

One of the truths about my apparent obsessive-compulsive behaviour towards the various written studies of JFK is rooted in his love of the English language and his awareness of the power of the spoken and written word.

In one of the seminal books on JFK entitled Kennedy, written posthumously by Theodore Sorensen JFK's Personal Assistant and speechwriter extraordinaire, Sorensen had a section that lent a glimpse of the process in which JFK's Presidential Inaugural Address was crafted. It also revealed the thought process that JFK and Sorensen went through in preparing one of the most important speeches an American President can make in his political career. Here's a swatch of Sorensen:
He (JFK) had first mentioned it (drafting the Inaugural Address) to me in November (1960). He wanted suggestions from everyone. He wanted it short. He wanted it focused on foreign policy. He did not want it to sound partisan, pessimistic or critical of his predecessor. He wanted neither the customary cold war rhetoric about the Communist menace or weasel words that Kruschev (the Soviet leader at the time) might misinterpret. And he wanted it to set a tone for the era about to begin.
He asked me to read all the past Inaugural Addresses (which I discovered to be a largely undistinguished lot, with some of the best eloquence emanating from some of our worst Presidents). He asked me to study the scret of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (my conclusion, which his Inaugural Address applied, was that Lincoln never used a two- or three-syllable word where a one-syllable word would do).

He was dissatisfied with each attempt to outline domestic goals. It sounded partisan, he said, divisive, too much like the campaign. Finally, he said, "Let's drop the domestic stuff altogether. It's too long anyway." He wanted it to be the shortest in the twentieth century, he said. "It's more effective that way and I don't want people to think I'm a windbag." He couldn't beat FDR's abbreviated wartime remarks in 1944, I said- and he settled for the shortest (less than nineteen hundred words) since 1905.
The next morning, on the patio in sport clothes, he reworked it further. "Let's eliminate all the 'I's," he said. "just say what 'we' will do. You'll have to leave it in about the oath and responsbility, but let's cut everywhere else." The ending, he said, "sounds an awful lot like the ending of the Massachussetts legislature speech, but I guess it's OK." He worked and reworked the "ask not" sentence, with the three campaign speeches containing the same phrase spread out on a low glass table beside him.

The power of JFK's Inaugural Address has lasted for nearly half a century. As recently as 2004, Thurston Clarke wrote an entire book entitled Ask Not, an excellent and well-written work, on the makings of the Inaugural Address. Clarke's thesis was to debunk the myth that JFK did not author the Inaugural Address and, that it was actually written by Sorensen in toto. Clarke establishes that JFK's imprimatur was stamped fully and indelibly on the Inaugural Address.
Come January 20, the date which is fixed for US Presidential Inaugurations, Obama's Inaugural Address will be delivered.

From the standpoint of oratory, there hasn't been a US President since JFK, quite like President-elect Obama, who can deliver soaring words without sounding silly. Ronald Reagan had a good sonoric voice that he used to good effect with large doses of Hollywood-style one-liner quips. But no one has matched JFK in speech or word, in my humble estimation. Until, Obama.

My only concern is that given the domestic economic maelstrom that now dogs the US, Obama will have to deal with the nuts and bolts issues. But, I suspect, Obama and his speechwriters will be smarter than that. During the best of times or the worst of times, people want to hear soothing words even if they are largely rhetorical.

That is why, in the Malaysian context, Raja Nazrin's speeches almost always bring cheer and inspiration and positive goodwill to the entire spectrum of the Malaysian community each and every time. Although he avoids rhetoric and couches his speech with great intellect and wisdom, Raja Nazrin touches the correct spot every time. He is a savvy public figure in Malaysia with a good reading of the true nature, pulse and aspirations of Malaysians.
Which leaves us with the anticipation of Obama's forthcoming Inaugural Address. It is something to look forward to. Given his now-famous Acceptance Speech in Chicago, upon being confirmed as President-elect, Obama's Inaugural Address could turn out to be one to remember for the ages to least, I hope so.

By way of a postscript, I wish to add an image of a painting of President-elect Obama in the famous Kennedy pose above. It's an image done amazingly well by Dan Lacey the Artist (from whose blog I borrowed the image of the JFK painting).

I want to thank Dan for sharing this Obama-in-Kennedy-repose image with me and, I want to suggest that you click here to visit his blog entitled, Dan Lacey, Painter of Pancakes to savour more of his great works of contemporary art.


de minimis said...

Comment by Hantu Laut:

I agree with you on the eloquence, oratory skills and refinement in use of words by John F.Kennedy and Barrack Obama.I would rate Obama better than Kennedy in some ways.Another great American orator was Abraham Lincoln who made many profound speeches that are still well remembered till today.

I just can't agree with you on Raja Nazrin.I have seen him on TV and wasn't really impress with his delivery.He read his speech like reading a book, lacking in force, emphasis and looking constantly at the paper in front of him and less of the audience.

I am not sure, maybe that's the princely way to deliver a speech or it was just a bad day for him.

Hantu Laut

de minimis said...


In Raja Nazrin's case his strength is in the content of the written word. Being a royal his role is dignified rather than executive or political. I guess his voice must, therefore, be even, not dramatic. Too much rhetoric may lead to misunderstanding of his message by the nervy politicos in Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

I beg to differ too on your opinion re Raja Nazrin; I've been to so many occassions where he happened to deliver the key-note and it's still the same style described by HL.
Anwar, Bung Karno - now, they can be compared to JFK and Obama.

de minimis said...

To out the context of my reference to Raja Nazrin in its proper perspective, read this extract from the post:

"During the best of times or the worst of times, people want to hear soothing words even if they are largely rhetorical.

That is why, in the Malaysian context, Raja Nazrin's speeches almost always bring cheer and inspiration and positive goodwill to the entire spectrum of the Malaysian community each and every time."

i did not refer to Raja Nazrin in the context of oratory but, more specifically, it was at the part of the post where I mentioned "soothing words" and striking the right chord. That's the context.

But I'm grateful that you troubled yourself to put in your remarks, though.

The reference to Bung Karno (President Sukarno) is interesting. Now there was a spellbinder of an orator.

walla said...

I am particularly taken up by the following statement made by Raja Nazrin in his speech on multiculturism:

“If there is someone in my society who is hungry, or unemployed or sick and cannot afford treatment, then it diminishes me even if he is of a different race or religion,”

What i also wonder is why hasn't a single political leader in our realm ever said a similar thing in living memory?

It seems whatever is said or to be said before the public has to be done looking over one's shoulders, or under one's shadows.

The courage and conviction to walk the right road so as to create the right example that will bring our peoples together have been sacrificed for the political flavor of the day. But just as the coffee of the day is often the cheapest and weakest on the menu, political correctness is often the most smallest and costliest pit-stop on the road to nation-building.

After half a century, we are today divided brother against brother, faith against faith, community against community.

Were they still alive, the forefathers of this country would have been terribly disappointed and disillusioned by what they can see of what has happened to us.

The uniqueness of Malaysia has nothing to do with race or its characteristics. It has everything to do with inclusiveness DESPITE diversity.

What we have only seen in the last thirty years of this country's administration can be explained off by one principle of action - divide to create polarities to build a balance of power.

Generation after generation of political leaders continue to deny that this principle has failed because they have found it such a fertile albeit makeshift stage to play out the full repertoire of their acting skills.

And it has failed because it has created only distrust and tension which have kept people from coming together in order to tap off each other's strengths and diminish each other's weakness.

Now they will only magnify each other's weakness and diminish each other's strengths.

Looking at the situation escalating day by day before us, even the multi-culturalism that our royalty has so clearly spoken for will be rolled away by a growing call for the abandonment of the word 'multi-racial' to describe one of the many facets of Malaysia. Were it only to then mean a Malaysian race made of diverse elements, there would still be some saving grace. But the rumble is growing only for a Malaysian race defined by only one element, moreover only some aspects of that element that would sit nicely in such parochialism leading to fresh alignments of power.

At the rate we are tumbling as a country which also explains why the contents and context of Raja Nazrin's speeches have always found ready audience and wide acceptance in those who can see through the political kaibutsu's, i am afraid the presidential speeches of our country, were we to have presidents, would only turn out to be short epitaphs.

One wonders how Sorensen, Schlesinger and Benson would have written the inaugural speeches of our ministers had they been Malaysians.

chapchai said...

I have never heard Raja Nazrin's speeches but I like the substance of what I read. He appears to be in resonance with the rakyat which is not what I can say of the ruling party.

Jarod said...

Raja Nazrin is far sighted. Unlike UMNO fella, always speak about things that are hard to digest.

Obama is truly inspiring with his winning speech in Chicago. Does JFK spoke the same as him? From what you have written, I can sense that JFK might have influence Obama in his speech.

SFGEMS said...

Kept seeing you around the blogosphere and now I understand why.

Loved your take on Obama and JFK. Loved even more the image of Obama by Dan Lacey.

Thanks for the link to Dan Lacy. I'll check him up soon.

de minimis said...


I, too, have noticed your active commentary around the blogosphere. Dan actually wrote me. I was reminded that I had borrowed his image without attribution. He wrote back to say he was pleased and rewarded me with the Obama image. Wonderful person.

SFGEMS said...

Wow! How come things like that never happen to me?


SFGEMS said...

Psst! Do you know Dan Lacey has linked you? How nice is that?


de minimis said...

hi Estrelita

Thanks for the tip. It's really flattering. :)

SFGEMS said...

May I please use this image of Obama in my blog? I want to post something in honour of the inauguration! I'll give credit to you and Dan Lacey! Pretty please!

de minimis said...

Hi Lita

Ai-yoh! Please go ahead and use it. Credit Dan Lacey the artist. I look forward to reading your post :)