Friday, September 5, 2008

Critical Analysis of Kennedy's Catholic Problem and Clinton's American Legion Speech

John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton face a very similar rhetorical problem in their respective speeches. Faced with rather hostile audiences they are forced to defend their character as relates to their bid for the presidency of the United States. Kennedy must circumvent the irrational fears of a catholic president to the protestant-dominated Houston Ministerial Association. Clinton must defend his character in response to criticism that he is a draft dodger and protested the Vietnam War. Like Kennedy, Clinton addresses an audience which may be less receptive, given his plans to scale back defense spending, not to mention his counter-culture past.

Kennedy and Clinton confront their character obstacles through the rhetorical strategies of refutation and personification. Refutation is an active response to an opponent and a bold way of openly dealing with the given criticism. Kennedy and Clinton do not shy away from the criticism which permeates the minds of their audiences. Kennedy in a frank way bring up the catholic question. Similarly Clinton actively engages his audiences in a lengthy refutation of his anti-war past. A longer explication on this rhetorical strategy will follow. Besides refutation, the rhetorical strategy of personification is exploited by both speakers to further deal with their character obstacles. Personification represents an idea through human examples. This is an especially useful strategy given its ability to introduce a human element to ideas or argumentative stances which might otherwise seem irrelevant or abstract to the listener. People are social and emotional being who make sense of the world based upon human experience. Hearing individual stories, whether they be fictional or real are often best to explain social or political principles. We see Kennedy reference his dead brother as part of his argument as to why he should be the next president of the United States. Without the surrounding historical and social context a dead brother might seem to hold little significance to Kennedy’s presidential bid. As we shall see it is likely the personification of his brother’s personal sacrifice resonated in a very meaningful way with the audience. Furthermore, his brother’s sacrifice is inextricably linked to the very character obstacle that Kennedy is facing at that particular time. The rhetorical strategies of refutation and personification serve the speakers with varying degrees of eloquence and success.
Kennedy begins his speech by directly acknowledging the fears of the audience, and the general criticisms against him. These irrational fears are based on the uncertainty of a catholic president. The office has been filled previously by religious people, though usually of the Christian protestant persuasion. This protestant religious identity was important to many people who equated it closely with their national identity. A catholic president therefore in some quarters was “un-American” and a threat to the nation’s perceived sovereignty and religious and cultural ethos. There also existed charges against Kennedy that his loyalties were more closely aligned with that of the Vatican and Papacy than with the American people. Kennedy’s entire speech acknowledges these fears, refutes them, and replaces those fears with assurances of his loyalty, patriotism, and unbending desire to serve the national interest.

No time is wasted regarding his Catholicism, which he addresses immediately. He opens his speech saying “While the so-called religious issue is necessarily the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 1060 election” (Kennedy, 1960, 2). This opening sets the tone for the entire speech which follows by in a sense dismissing his religion as holding political significance and suggesting the centrality and commonality of “critical issues” to the American people. Here he also makes clear he has no intention of justifying his faith or engaging in any theologically charged exegetical debate. He openly acknowledges the catholic question before throwing out to his audience the politically charged issues that he deems “critical.” They are communism, hunger, the elderly who cannot pay their doctor’s bills, lacks of schools, and the failure of the space program. Early in the speech Kennedy effectively refutes the charge of his critics by shifting the grounds of the debate from his personal religious faith to common problems the nation faces. In light of hungry children and communism which “festers ninety miles off the coast of Florida” even the most fanatically religious would admit the critical nature of the former problems. After refuting his opponents by shifting the surrounding debate he returns to the suspicions regarding his Catholicism. First, he must refute charges of a Vatican-based loyalty. He says “I believe in an America where separation of church and state is absolute – where no catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be catholic) how to act…where no public official either requests of accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source” (5-6). Kennedy is honest and rational about where his loyalties lie. He is neither ambiguous nor undecided about his philosophy of governing over a religious yet secular people. The separation of church and state is fundamental to the American system of self-governance. Although the founding of the nation was tied close with various religious groups, our secular distinctiveness and religious freedoms are what truly defines the United States constitution. Kennedy is intelligently taping into this source of pride which right rests with the vast majority of Americans. In this specific refutation we see both a high rational and emotional appeal. The abuses of ecclesiastical authorities in Europe throughout the centuries had spawned the American colonies and many immigrants who followed, escaping various forms of religious persecution. Americans for the most part are highly adamant about maintaining this “absolute” separation of church and state so as to facilitate the pursuance of liberty in all religious beliefs and practices. Kennedy’s appeal to this fundamental tenant of the American system likely created a natural affinity with his audience thus settling fears of a Vatican loyalty.

In order to further defend his character and legitimacy as a future president, Kennedy uses the rhetorical strategy of personification. The speech is highly rational in addressing the question of a catholic president. To bring those arguments to light Kennedy finds ways to introduce human elements which in turn builds a highly emotionally sympathetic and psycho-social response. First, Kennedy exemplifies his insistence on a free and secular government by announcing his own participation in fighting for it in the South Pacific (12). Secondly, he firmly states that his brother died for it. These frank statements are personal, emotionally charged, yet corporate in meaning among himself, his audience, and the American people as a whole. With World War II still fresh in the minds of the audience Kennedy does not need to unpack the implicit meaning of his family’s sacrifice as relates to his character obstacle. His brother was fighting the most illiberal, racist, bigoted form of political ideology which was threatening large segments of the globe. Kennedy’s catholic family shared in the nation’s sacrifice to combat and eventually triumph over a monstrous force which stifled religious freedoms and embodied the worse of oppression and intolerance. Kennedy’s underlying point is that similar strains of intolerance, although to a lesser degree, exist among his opponents who might insist that religious persuasion is an unwavering determinant of what one can or cannot be in American society. For the Kennedy family to fight and die for human freedom and religious liberty in a foreign land then have it be denied to them back home is a bitter injustice. Kennedy does not come remotely close to making comparisons between the Nazi regime and his opponents but instead positions his brother’s enemy and American exceptionalism as completely antithetical, urging listeners to mediate on how the war defined and clarified America’s most important freedoms. His dead brother therefore is a living testament to why a catholic should not be denied an office based on a personal religious affair. Those in attendance from the Houston Ministerial Association likely found Kennedy’s argument related to family sacrifice unshakeable. The most anti-catholic in the audience might still maintain that the Pope is the anti-Christ but they would surely be unable to deny the heroism of the Kennedy’s and their wholly American character.

In the 1992 presidential election Bill Clinton was not especially revered among military personnel and hawkish Americans. He was a left-leaning democrat, without military experience, and was widely known for protesting the Vietnam War. Although these characteristics should not be immediately disadvantageous the record was enough to give his opposition enough ammo for smear campaigns. In his address to the American Legion Convention Clinton takes on these character obstacles in an effort to reconcile his politics with veterans and fellow legionnaires. He must prove his patriotism, ability to lead during times of war, and dedication to military personnel. As with Kennedy he uses the rhetorical strategies of refutation and personification.

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