Editing Internet Texts/American Exceptionalism and National Myths in John F. Kennedy's Rhetoric/American Presidential Rhetoric

American Presidential RhetoricEdit

The study of American presidential rhetoric is limited mainly to public speeches. The president uses rhetoric to reach various goals, because as Gelderman observes "speeches are the core of modern presidency".[1] Presidential rhetoric is a powerful tool used by the highest ranked person in the country to interpret and define reality.

In the past, presidential speeches were not as frequent a phenomenon as in these days due to the contemporaneous model of leadership and technology. In his studies Ryan L. Teten makes a distinction between the three stages in the evolution of presidential rhetoric:[2]

  • founding period (1790 - 1825)
  • traditional period (1825 - 1913)
  • modern period that started with Woodrow Wilson and has continued until today.

Until the end of the 19th century the presidents strongly based on deeply rooted traditions, dated back to George Washington and his first presidential speech in which he referred to the Declaration of Independence and to the Constitution. Back then, the presidents focused on tradition and their role as head of state in their speeches. The major change occurred during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson Woodrow, who are associated with the beginning of the modern presidential rhetoric. Presidents started to deliver their speeches directly to the audience, thus seeking public approval. Furthermore, Woodrow introduced two types of rhetoric:

  • policy speech, whose main aim is to justify political action and president’s policy
  • visionary speech, which creates the future goal and motivates the nation to reach that goal.

One may observe the new and emerging concept of the post-modern stage of rhetorical presidency with the personalization of the American Presidency as a leading feature.[3] The aforementioned concept portrays the president not only as a political figure but as a man of his own identity. This idea is realized through the use of much more conversational and colloquial style, less intellectual rhetoric and via conveying elements from the privet life of president.

The studies of presidential speeches centre around both the uniqueness of specific themes as well as the existence of the recurrent motifs. American Presidential Rhetoric is steeped in American culture and the history of the United States. As Martin J.Medhurst observes, "rhetoric and history must be studied together, because both are complicated matters that directly impinge upon one another."[4] Therefore, one may say that rhetoric of each president is bound with his attitude to and relationship with the history of the country. He transforms his life and ideas into a powerful public language, which constitutes politics.

Presidential Rhetoric in MediaEdit

President Truman delivering a radio speech, 1946

The development of the mass media has contributed significantly to the rise of the popularity of presidential rhetoric and enabled presidents to reach a national audience. Presidents took advantage of a growing popularity of radio and television to deliver their message to a wider audience. Jackson, F. D. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Obama all efficiently made use of the newspaper, radio, television and the Internet respectively, all of which opened up new opportunities and brought burdens to modern presidency. Live broadcast enabled presidents to address people galore. However, this way of presentation put pressure on the president, who must have been prepared for many unpredictable outcomes of a debate, an interview, or a speech. This approach of a self-presentation focuses primarily on communication and a spoken word. The overall image and charisma of the president becomes more important than presidential rhetoric and the content of a speech. The main purpose is to create the sense of spontaneity through more informal, conversational style and less elaborate, shorter and slogan-like sentences.

Types of American presidential speechesEdit

Generally it is believed that the most important speeches emerge during the last, executive season. These are:

  • Inaugural Address

The first Inaugural Address was delivered by George Washington in 1789. This tradition has been perpetuated for over 200 years for almost every president has chosen to follow the tradition initiated by Washington. Hence, the Inaugural Address has become an anticipated part of Presidential Inauguration. Inaugural Address falls into a distinct genre of presidential rhetoric. One may observe that it is very ceremonial in tone and ritual in character with the main objectives to set the tone of presidency and presidential language, leaving aside the political agenda and to create a message that would craft president as a national leader. President addresses not only the country but also the history, with the main focus on reaffirming the continuity of American democracy. The inaugural address focuses on the celebration of American history and the glorious past of the nation. In the speech various national myths are mentioned, which emphasizes the inseparability of the present and the past.

Example: Barack Obama - First Inaugural Address

  • State of the Union address

It is delivered annually by the president to the Congress. It is formally mandated by the U.S. Constitution, requiring president to present the "state of union" and to provide the Congress with measures that he believes to be expedient. Throughout years it has undergone a few name changes. From 1790 to 1946 it was known as the "Annual Message", then it was referred to as "state of the Union", and since 1947 its official name is the State of the Union Address. The first State of the Union Address was delivered by George Washington in 1790. Originally designed as a means of communication with the Congress, it has became the means of communication between the president and the nation. The development of radio and television contributed significantly to gaining a larger audience. Calvin Coolidge speech was the first to be transmitted via radio and Harry Truman's to be broadcast on television. The State of the Union address is less ceremonial than inaugural address and focuses on the present problems, future goals and specific policy issues. It is steeped in ceremony and tradition. Apart from the common sequence of arguments, in which president presents his views on current affairs and policy recommendations, the State of the Union Address exhibits recurrent themes such as appealing to common traditions, the past and the future.

Example: John F. Kennedy - State of the Union Address, 30 January 1961

  • Crisis Rhetoric

In crisis rhetoric, president presents himself as a firm leader of the nation, "competent crisis manager" [5] and above all he acts as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. He declares that current, critical situation to the United States calls for his decisive action. The problem is elevated from the national to the worldwide level and presented as a threat to world peace. Thus, any decision made by president meets with the approval of the nation. The ethos of president is elaborately crafted and follows the established pattern. First, president presents actions that have been undertaken, justifies his decisions and presents his personal opinion on the matter. Here, he acts as a confident and authoritative leader. Subsequently, president evokes American values and asks for the national unity. By referring to typical commonplaces he emphasizes that nothing has changed and that the current situation has not undermined basic American values. President establishes a strong distinction between good (us) and evil (them).

Example: George W. Bush "A Great People Has Been Moved to Defend a Great Nation"


As far as presidential rhetoric is concerned, one ought to remember that speeches are usually written by so-called "ghost writers". Most presidents have had their speeches prepared by the employed and professional people. Thus, one needs to bear in mind that the words uttered by president are the words scripted by his professional and influential advisors. The ideas conveyed in speeches may or may not be the real convictions and thoughts of president. Ted Sorensen was a main drafter of Kennedy's speeches.


  1. Gelderman, C. 1995. "All the Presidents' Words: The Bully Pulpit and the Creation of the Virtual Presidency" The Wilson Quarterly 19: 8-9
  2. Teten, Ryan L. 2003. "Evolution of the Modern Rhetorical Presidency: Presidential Presentation and Development of the State of the Union Adress." Presidential Studies Quarterly 33, 333-346.
  3. Schwarz, S. 2010. The Role of Religion in American Presidential Rhetoric: a Comparative Analysis of Speeches by John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, Trier: Atlantische Akademie, p.73
  4. Medhurst, Martin J. 2006. The Rhetorical Presidency of George H .W. Bush. Texas A&M University Press, 3-6.
  5. Schwarz, S. 2010. The Role of Religion in American Presidential Rhetoric: a Comparative Analysis of Speeches by John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, Trier: Atlantische Akademie, p.22