Masters of Chiasmus: John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy

Our second Master of Chiasmus is another eloquent and witty politician, John F. Kennedy. If you enjoy this feature, please let me know what you like about it, and why. If I fail to include an essential quote, or err in some way, let me know that as well. Your comments will make this a better site for other visitors in the future.

In 1961, JFK became the 35th president of the United States, the youngest man—and the first Catholic—ever elected to the office. No American politician has used chiasmus more extensively—or more effectively. Is there anybody who hasn't heard these stirring words from his inaugural address?

John F. Kennedy
“And so, my fellow Americans,
ask not what your country can do for you;
ask what you can do for your country.”

Like millions of others, I was profoundly moved by JFK's inaugural speech, and especially by these simple but powerful words. The power of this now-immortal line derives not only from what JFK was saying, but how he phrased it. When great content is combined with the intriguing structure of chiasmus, the result can be unforgettable.

During my research over the past decade, I discovered that the "ask not" sentiment was not completely original with Kennedy. In my Never Let a Fool Kiss You book, I present three other very similar sentiments from Warren G. Harding, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and LeBaron Russell Briggs, a popular turn-of-the century writing professor at Harvard who in 1904 urged students to think of their Alma Mater and: "Always ask, not 'What can she do for me?' but 'What can I do for her?'"

Since the book was published, I've discovered several additional quotes that bear a close resemblance to Kennedy's famous line. In an 1893 speech, for example, an English politician named St. John Broderick said: "The first duty of a citizen is to consider what he can do for the state and not what the state will do for him."

Was Kennedy inspired by any of these earlier quotes? It's certainly plausible, since he attended Harvard and was certainly familiar with the speeches of Harding and Holmes. We'll probably never know for sure, but my guess is that JFK was familiar with at least some of these earlier versions of the sentiment, and they lodged in the back of his mind, only to reappear years later. All of this is mere speculation, however, and only one conclusion is certain. Kennedy may not have said it first, but he clearly said it best.

The "Ask not" line wasn't the first chiastic phrase to come from the young president's mouth, nor would it be the last. With the help of a talented group of speechwriters that included Theodore Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., JFK used chiasmus so often that William Safire, in The New Language of Politics, wrote that his speeches were said to be written in "the Sorenson Style."

The rhetorical flourish of chiasmus came to be so associated with Sorenson that he even took some playful ribbing about it. In a 1967 column, for example, William F. Buckley urged Americans to squarely face the world Communist revolution, or suffer the consequences. In a good-natured parody, he wrote: "Unless we learn how to cope with it, it will—as Theodore Sorenson would put it—cope with us."

And in his 1998 book Great Political Wit, Bob Dole reveals the lighter side of a politician not noted for a sense of humor, Richard Nixon. Here's the story, in Dole's own words:

Shortly after President Kennedy's famous inauguration in 1961, Nixon and presidential aide Ted Sorenson met. Their conversation turned to Kennedy's inaugural address. "I wish I had said some of those things," Nixon said.

"Which part?" Sorenson asked, justifiably proud of his speechwriting prowess. "That part about 'Ask not what your country can do for you?'"

"No," replied Nixon. "The part that starts, 'I do solemnly swear.'"

Now let's move on to other chiastic quotes from John F. Kennedy.

“Let us never negotiate out of fear;
but let us never fear to negotiate.”

This line also comes from the 1961 inaugural address. Overshadowed by the enormous popularity of the "Ask not" line, it's not as familiar as it might otherwise have been. In a speech to the United Nations later in the year, Kennedy reprised the sentiment: "We shall never negotiate out of fear, we shall never fear to negotiate."

“For fourteen years
I have placed my confidence
in the citizens of Massachusetts
and they have generously responded
by placing their confidence in me.”

President-elect Kennedy delivered these words to a joint session at the Massachusetts State House in January of 1961, just prior to his inauguration.

John F. Kennedy

“Mankind must put an end to war,
or war will put an end to mankind.”

Kennedy said this in a 1961 address to the United Nations. President Truman had said something similar in a 1946 speech: "If we do not abolish war on this earth, then surely, one day war will abolish us from the earth."

“Liberty without learning is always in peril
and learning without liberty is always in vain.”

This came from an address at the 90th anniversary of Vanderbilt University in 1963.

“Each success brings with it the potential of failure
and each failure brings with it the potential of success.”

Some of Kennedy's more memorable chiastic phrasings don't come from short, "sound-bite" quotes, but from somewhat more extensive passages. Here are several examples.

“When a well-known diplomat from another country
demanded recently that our State Department
repudiate certain newspaper attacks on his colleague,
it was necessary for us to reply that this Administration
was not responsible for the press,
for the press had already made it clear that
it was not responsible for this administration.”

Kennedy was adept at winning people over with his sense of humor. This line drew hearty laughter and appreciative applause when JFK used it in a 1961 address to the American Newspaper Publishers Association. Most of the publishers in the audience had endorsed Richard Nixon in the 1960 election and many were highly critical in the early days of the Kennedy Administration. The speech, and especially this clever line, helped turn many early critics into eventual supporters—or at least respecters—of a president with such grace and wit.

“In the year 1717, King George I of England
donated a very valuable library to Cambridge University
and at very nearly the same time,
had occasion to dispatch a regiment to Oxford.
The King, remarked one famous wit, had
judiciously observed the condition of both universities—
one was a learned body in need of loyalty
and the other was a loyal body in need of learning.”

This comes from a 1963 speech Kennedy gave at the University of Maine. The story has been told for centuries in England, demonstrating the popularity of chiasmus among academics and intellectuals.

“‘Don't teach my boy poetry,’
an English mother recently wrote the Provost of Harrow.
‘Don't teach my boy poetry;
he is going to stand for Parliament.’
Well, perhaps she was right—
but if more politicians knew poetry,
and more poets knew politics,
I am convinced the world would be
a little better place to live.”

Kennedy, one of the few American politicians with a genuine fondness for poetry, made these remarks at the 1956 annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, while serving as United States Senator from Massachusetts.

“The men who create power
make an indispensable contribution
to the nation's greatness.
But the men who question power make
a contribution just as indispensable
for they determine whether
we use power
or power uses us.”

Unlike many of the more insecure politicians who preceded and followed him, Kennedy not only believed in dissent, he appeared to welcome it.

“A willingness to resist force,
unaccompanied by a willingness to talk,
could provoke belligerence—
while a willingness to talk,
unaccompanied by a willingness to resist force,
could invite disaster.”

This line—from a 1961 speech at the University of Washington—demonstrates something interesting about chiasmus. Whenever two things are necessary for something to occur, it's possible to create a chiastic phrase by using the formula: "A minus B, and B minus A are insufficient; both A and B are necessary."

John F. Kennedy
“Today, every inhabitant of this planet
must contemplate the day when
this planet may no longer be habitable.”

From a 1961 address to a joint session of Congress, this quote is a sobering reminder of how perilous it felt to live in the shadow of a nuclear holocaust. Kennedy went on to say, "Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness." He concluded with another chiastic line: "The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."

“Experience has taught us that
an agreement to negotiate
does not always mean
a negotiated agreement.”

From a 1962 address at the University of California at Berkeley, Kennedy was hopeful but cautious after announcing that the Americans and Russians had agreed to talk about the joint exploration of space.

“Each increase of tension
has produced an increase of arms;
each increase of arms
has produced an increase of tension.”

This observation on the arms race came during a 1963 radio and television address on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He went on to say: "Yesterday, a shaft of light cut into the darkness. Negotiations were concluded in Moscow on a treaty to ban all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water. For the first time an agreement has been reached on bringing the forces of nuclear destruction under international control."

“I am confident, if we maintain the peace,
that we shall in due season
reap the kind of world we deserve and
deserve the kind of world we shall have.”

This came from a 1963 speech to the Protestant Council of New York City.

John F. Kennedy and Implied Chiasmus

In my Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You book, I introduce a concept called implied chiasmus, which occurs when the words of a popular saying are deliberately reversed. Some examples are Mae West's "A hard man is good to find," Kermit the Frog's "Time's fun when you're having flies," and Ziggy's "A waist is a terrible thing to mind."

If you examine these sayings, you'll notice that each one reverses the words of a popular saying: "A good man is hard to find," "Time flies when you're having fun," and the slogan of the United Negro College Fund, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

Implied chiasmus has been favored by wits and wordsmiths for many years, and JFK was no exception. Here are several examples.

“Washington is a city
of southern efficiency
and northern charm.”

Here, Kennedy humorously reverses what people normally talk about—northern efficiency and southern charm.

John F. Kennedy

“To paraphrase the old saying,
‘Good news is no news.’”

Quoted in a 1962 issue of Parade magazine, Kennedy reverses the words of the popular saying, "No news is good news."

“We know they will invoke the name of Abraham Lincoln
on behalf of their candidate—despite the fact that
the political career of their candidate has often seemed
to show charity toward none and malice for all.”

Kennedy said this in his July 1960 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president. Referring to Republicans and their presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, he reverses the famous words of Abraham Lincoln: "With malice toward none, with charity for all."

This completes our look at John F. Kennedy. In our next edition, we'll take a look at another chiastic master, Oscar Wilde.


I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like
Viva la Repartee
Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You