The Rhetoric Men

01/29/2009 06:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two veteran political speechwriters, JFK's prominent aide and Obama mentor Theodore Sorensen and LBJ press secretary Bill Moyers, felt loud vibrations of the 1960 presidential campaign as Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency.

As Sorensen noted in an interview, "The primary campaign political climate of 2008 [was] much like that of 1960, with the survival in a multi-star Democratic field of two giants, both in 2008 and 1960: a demographically challenged young charismatic Harvard-educated Senator opposed by an older, less progressive but presumably more experienced as well as better-known Senator."

Moyers described it this way, "An upstart challenges the establishment. The campaign is fought right down to the wire, decided in '60 at the convention, [and] in '08 very close to the convention. Both Kennedy and Obama [were] very exciting, attracting new voters, pitting youth versus age...young, interesting, different from other politicians -- their roots less in Washington than in other American milieus."

These were the very obvious similarities between the two successful Democrats: youthful elegance, a modest Senate tenure, and gifted oratory. But the last -- the candidates' respective rhetoric -- is nuanced and not fully understood.

Launching their presidential ambitions, in effect, at the preceding quadrennial presidential conventions, both Kennedy and Obama garnered much praise for their 1956 Chicago and 2004 Boston convention addresses, which propelled them indelibly into the national spotlight.

Obama's political capital soared supernaturally following his 2004 Keynote Address just as one journalist then wrote of Kennedy's 1956 convention performance, "Since the Democratic national convention of August, 1956, which blasted him into national view as suddenly as though he had leapt from the wrong launching pad at Cape Canaveral or scored the losing touchdown in the Rose Bowl, Kennedy has given more than 1,000 such speeches. He has been far and away the most sought-after Democratic orator of the era."

These speeches stressed the importance of electing the Democratic Party's ticket amid critical concerns abroad (the threat of the Soviet Union in 1956 and that of Islamic fundamentalists three years after 9/11) and the need for real solutions to the nation's enduring domestic problems (a growing poverty rate then and a growing economic crisis for American families today). But the keynotes articulated vastly different theses: Kennedy stressed the urgency of party harmony during a closely fought convention, while Obama emphasized a broader national unity.

Both Kennedy and Obama, as Sorensen reflected of his candidate in 1965, "attempted to tackle a new subject or combination of subjects in almost every speech...[which] often served only as a springboard to the swing theme he pressed...the challenges of the sixties [and similarly of 2008] to America's security, America's prestige, America's progress." This description almost predicted Obama's rhetorical modus operandi.

While Obama, like Kennedy, took a similar tact to embrace "a better America" and "a more perfect Union," addressing many concerns of the electorate, there was a central issue to which Obama always returned: Iraq. For Obama, the initial pivot point towards change was his judgment to oppose entering the war.

In the same interview, Sorensen said Kennedy and Obama offered campaign rhetoric that can be characterized as "visionary, hopeful, and progressive." But not, as Sorensen contends, were their campaign speeches equally substantive in the way they called on how Americans could "serve" their nation.

While Kennedy and Obama cited "you, the citizen" as vital to their future policies, Obama was mostly silent on what institutional forms this role might take, whereas Kennedy unveiled initiatives like the Peace Corps and citizen-led diplomatic relief in Africa and South America. As President-elect and now as President, Obama has offered more detail.

Kennedy, it should be remembered, never shared Obama's post-partisan vision. In campaign addresses, he often referred to the tough fighting spirit, generally more partisan than apolitical or bipartisan, needed to govern and make policy (rhetoric more similar to that of Hillary Clinton or John Edwards).

And although they envisioned a similar generational shift, Obama more radically sought distance from Washington, whereas Kennedy did not reject the capacity of Washington to do good work for the people.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Kennedy assistant and historian, said through his rhetoric, "His greatest need, he thought, was to give his campaign identity--to distinguish his appeal from that of his rivals and suggest that he could bring the country something no one else could." In the most fundamental sense, this is the strongest similarity between Kennedy and Obama.

They both argued that their candidacies were uniquely poised to forge a new politics escaping politics as usual and a period of conservative rule and to reach a new age, as Schlesinger articulated, of "affirmation, progressivism, and forward movement."

And, boy, did both men see a coming American renewal.

In 1960 Kennedy told a Wisconsin crowd about an imminent national revival, "Today we stand at a decisive point in history. Let us hope that that a renewed effort and renewed vision will provide the fulcrum -- and perhaps we, too, can move the world -- on the road to world peace."

Forty-eight years later, Obama posited a shared desire for profound remaking. "We have the renew our common purpose for a new century, and to write the next chapter in the story of America's success," he said in an economic address at Cooper Union.

With these ambitious promises of reform, Kennedy and Obama repeatedly cautioned the nation: it's not going to be easy.

If one thing above all else unites Kennedy and Obama and transcends their biographical and rhetorical differences, it is their remarkable ability to inspire as their generation's iconic rhetoric men.

In the coming weeks and months, what most view as an open question today -- if Obama can deliver -- will clarify. In Kennedy's case, historians can only imagine if he would have made a lasting imprint on policy. Soon, America will see if Obama, more like LBJ than JFK, will transcend rhetoric to change the lives of her people.

Alexander Heffner, president of Scoop Media and editor-in-chief of Scoop44 launching on President's Day (2/16), is currently completing a rhetorical history of the 2008 presidential campaign. He is an undergraduate at Harvard University.