A Rising Tide Lifts All the Boats
The Proverbial Rhetoric of John F. Kennedy
Overall this study shows that John F. Kennedy was indeed a highly gifted communicator on the national and international stage, whose effective political discourse was informed to a considerable degree by proverbial language. The title proverb of this book – "A rising tide lifts all the boats" – was one of his favorites, and might well serve as a fitting symbol of his uplifting optimism in his struggle for freedom and peace throughout the world.
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Table of Contents
- Chapter One: “Let the Word Go Forth”: John F. Kennedy’s Concern about Language and Style
- Chapter Two: “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You”: The Visionary and Formulaic Language of the Inaugural Address
- Chapter Three: From “civis Romanus sum” to “Ich bin ein Berliner”: Kennedy’s Sententious Remarks as the Gospel of Freedom
- Chapter Four: “The Cause of America is the Cause of All Mankind”: Kennedy’s Propensity for Familiar Quotations
- Chapter Five: “The Truth Shall Make You Free”: Kennedy’s Reliance on Proverbial Wisdom from the Bible
- Chapter Six: “This is a Free Country”: Proverbs in the Service of Justice, Freedom, and Peace
- Chapter Seven: “We Must Set Our House in Order”: Proverbial Expressions as Evocative Political Discourse
- Chapter Eight: “We are Willing to Look Life in the Eye”: Somatic Phrases as Signs of Emotive Commitment
- Chapter Nine: “Riding the Back of the Tiger”: Animal Metaphors as Reflections of Human Behavior
- Chapter Ten: “A Rising Tide Lifts All the Boats”: Maritime Expressions as Symbols of Life’s Vicissitudes
- Index of Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases
The work on this book has brought back special memories for me. As a sixteen-year-old German youngster I had arrived on September 10, 1960, by boat at the harbor of New York City. From there I traveled by a Greyhound bus to Michigan to spend a year as a foreign student outside of Detroit. Everything was new and exciting, notably Motown music and the fancy automobiles. But there was also the American Government course I took at Wayne Memorial High School that fascinated me, introducing me to the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, various presidents, and much more. Of course, this was also the time of yet another presidential election. At the home of my American family, I witnessed the debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. There was also plenty of discussion about the presidential campaign at school. It surely was an exciting time to be introduced to American politics, and I still have a mental picture of the vigorous and youthful Kennedy delivering his many campaign speeches. And then came his triumph on November 8, 1960, that saw him elected to the presidency. His subsequent speech in West Berlin on June 26, 1963, with his unforgettable exclamation “Ich bin ein Berliner” touched me deeply as a college student. Little did I know that six decades later I would revisit this time in American political history by studying Kennedy’s proverbial rhetoric that most certainly was part of his communicative prowess.
Clearly then, this study has a special emotional meaning to me. But this has also been the case with my books on other major political figures of American history, such as Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Harry S. Truman, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama. I will never forget how moved I was by the life of Frederick Douglass and his pursuit of social justice. When I published my book “No Struggle, No Progress”. Frederick Douglass and His Proverbial Rhetoric for Civil Rights (2001), I wrote in the preface: “While working on this book, I made the decision to apply for American citizenship after having had the privilege of living and working in this country for forty years. My excitement and admiration for Frederick Douglass, a giant among civil rights leaders of this country, doubtless had much to do with this move. It is my hope that when I become a citizen in the near future, I can put to use what I have learned from Frederick Douglass.” My big day of citizenship came on May 11, 2001, and I recall my thankful feeling when relatives, friends, colleagues, and students congratulated me by saying that I make a good American.
In the meantime, I have remained faithful to my interest in the proverbial rhetoric of American politics, as can be seen from my books Proverbs Are the Best Policy. Folk Wisdom and American Politics (2005), Behold the Proverbs of a People. Political Wisdom in Culture, Literature, and Politics (2014), and “Right Makes Might”. Proverbs and the American World View (2019). They include chapters on some of the political leaders already mentioned but also on John and Abigail Adams, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Marshall, John Lewis, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. There are also studies on the history of such proverbial quotations as “All men are created equal” and “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”, the latter being the most precise definition of democracy. It is hardly surprising that these statements and many more sententious remarks, Bible and folk proverbs, and a plethora of proverbial expressions appear in political rhetoric to add wisdom, knowledge, metaphor, and emotional expressiveness to political discourse.
President John F. Kennedy is no exception in this regard, as I discovered by reading the 8,000 pages of his printed communications comprising his books, his innumerable speeches, addresses, press conferences, debates, letters, etc. It was no easy task to put some order into the many passages that include sententious and proverbial references, but by carefully screening the most significant from the attached index, I decided on the following ten chapters: (1) Kennedy’s concern about appropriate language and elevated style, (2) his visionary inaugural address based to a large degree on formulaic language, (3) his own creations of sententious remarks expounding freedom, (4) his reliance on familiar quotations that he began to collect early in his life, (5) his frequent employment of wisdom form the Old and New Testaments, (6) his use of folk proverbs in the call for justice, freedom, and peace, (7) his integration of proverbial expressions to add metaphor to the political discourse, (8) his reliance on somatic phrases as emotive language, (9) his interest in animal metaphors to reflect human behavior, and (10) his maritime expressions as indicators of life’s ebb and flow. Naturally only selective passages could be integrated into the discussions of the various chapters, but the attached index includes all contextualized passages with sententious and proverbial language that I was able to locate in the voluminous corpus of Kennedy texts. Altogether this study shows that former President John F. Kennedy was indeed a highly gifted communicator on the national and international stage whose effective political discourse was informed to a considerable degree by proverbial language. And the title proverb of this book – “A rising tide lifts all the boats” – that was one of his favorites, might well serve as a fitting symbol of his uplifting optimism in his struggle for freedom and peace throughout the world.
The work on this book has been a scholarly delight and honor for me, as I tried to express at the beginning of this short preface. I have long felt that scholarship is especially meaningful if there happens to be a personal connection to the subject matter, be it ever so small. It is also always a pleasure to thank Lisa Brooks and her staff of the Interlibrary Loan Office at the University of Vermont for obtaining several publications for me, including the purchase of several books that are now housed in our library. Special thanks for their help and interest in my project is due several friends and colleagues, notably professors Charles Clay Doyle (University of Georgia), James Deutsch (George Washington University), William Hansen (Indiana University), Ulrich Lappenküper (University of Bonn), Heinz-Helmut Lüger (University of Landau), Dennis F. Mahoney (University of Vermont), and Fred R. Shapiro (Yale University). Of course, I also thank my dear wife Barbara Mieder for her steady encouragement and valuable support throughout this intriguing project.
Finally, as is mentioned in this book, President John F. Kennedy was very committed to the immigration policies of the United States. For that cause he published his small book A Nation of Immigrants (1958) while he was in the Senate. An expanded version with an introduction by his brother Robert F. Kennedy appeared posthumously in 1964. As the country continues to struggle with immigration issues, we might do well to revisit his book to see what an idealistic and optimistic former president had to say about it. In thankful memory of my own immigration, I dedicate this book to all those who wish to come to the United States in the hope of becoming valuable American citizens in due time.
John F. Kennedy’s Concern about Language and Style
There can be no doubt that President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) was a wordsmith par excellence in his multitude of oral and written communications. He took great pride in his rhetorical prowess in his books Why England Slept (1940), Profiles in Courage (1956), and A Nation of Immigrants (1958 ). His acclaimed historical depiction of nine courageous American politicians for which he had obtained considerable help in the research and writing process by his influential speechwriter Theodore C. Sorenson earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 (Sorenson 1965: 66–70; Wills 1982: 134–139). The Strategy of Peace (1960), edited by Allan Nevins, might well be considered a fourth book by Kennedy. It contains a collection of his Senate speeches delivered between 1953 and 1960 together with his explanatory remarks. The very first paragraph, written on January 1, 1960, at Washington, D.C., is a revealing statement of Kennedy’s view about the importance of verbal communication in a democratic society:
This volume is born of the reminder that “in the beginning is the word” – and particularly so, in the case of a democratic government. For in such a government it is the freely spoken and freely challenged word that is meant to lay open a vision of the realities lying beyond the sweep of naked eyesight. Surely, then, the first duty of an officer in a democratic government is to uphold the integrity of words used in public debate; and to do this by himself using them in ways that they will stand as one with the things they are meant to represent. (XI, 3; January 1, 1960)
It is of linguistic interest that Kennedy changed the past tense of the Bible quotation “In the beginning was the word” (John 1:1) to the present, thereby emphasizing that the proper and honest employment of words is of utmost significance in a democratic society.
Of course, the following declaration from the third short paragraph of his inaugural address reiterates the programmatic value of the word in international affairs by the new president:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. (I, 1; January 20, 1961)
Not surprisingly, this memorable sentence has made it into the two seminal quotation dictionaries (Bartlett 2012: 785, Shapiro 2021: 446, no. 7). The uncommon formulation “Let the word go forth” has a somewhat Biblical ring to it, and perhaps Kennedy had the following passage from the Old Testament in mind: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isiah 55:11). My supposition might not be too far-fetched, since Kennedy with his solid Catholic upbringing had “a genuine interest in and working knowledge of the Bible. He delighted in several Biblical passages and his public addresses were replete with Biblical references” (Menendez 1978: 72). Numerous proverbial statements from the Bible in the attached index pay witness to Kennedy’s propensity for Bible quotations. However, he never employed them to proselytize, having made the following sententious declaration in an address to the Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960: “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens to be a Catholic” (XXIX, 133; September 12, 1960; Warnick 1996). Besides, Kennedy was far more at home with secular quotations and folk expressions, as for example his use of the phrase “to be true to one’s word” during the Berlin crisis of 1961:
The solemn vow each of us gave to West Berlin in time of peace will not be broken in time of danger. If we do not meet our commitments to Berlin, where will we later stand? If we are not true to our word there, all that we have achieved in collective security, which relies on these words, will mean nothing. And if there is one path above all others to war, it is the path of weakness and disunity. (I, 539; July 25, 1961)
And in the statement employing the proverbial expression once again, it functions as a sincere metaphor for being committed to avoid a nuclear war:
The 1930’s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word. Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these [nuclear] missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere. (II, 807; October 22, 1962)
Regarding “word” expressions, there is finally also his terse response to the question at a news conference whether former Vice President Richard Nixon perhaps is planning to be a presidential candidate again: “No. I have taken him at his word, that he won’t run again” (III, 614; August 1, 1863).
- X, 292
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (Hardcover)
- Publication date
- 2023 (August)
- John F. Kennedy Rhetoric Politics Proverbs Language Folklore Communication American Speech Discourse Literature Linguistics A Rising Tide Lifts All the Boats The Proverbial Rhetoric of John F. Kennedy Wolfgang Mieder
- New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. X, 292 pp.