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?
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.
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."
President-elect Kennedy delivered these words to a joint session at the Massachusetts State House in January of 1961, just prior to his inauguration.
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."
This came from an address at the 90th anniversary of Vanderbilt University in 1963.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Unlike many of the more insecure politicians who preceded and followed him, Kennedy not only believed in dissent, he appeared to welcome it.
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."
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."
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.
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."
This came from a 1963 speech to the Protestant Council of New York City.
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.
Here, Kennedy humorously reverses what people normally talk about—northern efficiency and southern charm.
Quoted in a 1962 issue of Parade magazine, Kennedy reverses the words of the popular saying, "No news is good news."
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.