NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
John F. Kennedy's presidency lasted just a thousand days, one of the briefest in American history, but it's so well remembered not just because of dramatic events like the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights movement, and the space race, but because of the words the president used to describe and define those events.
Often described as the first president of the television age, John F. Kennedy came of age listening to the rhetoric of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and consciously tried to cast himself in their mold. Delivering his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, then candidate John F. Kennedy called on a national audience to join him on what he called America's New Frontier.
(Soundbite of 1960 speech)
President JOHN F. KENNEDY: But I believe that the times require imagination and courage and perseverance. I'm asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age, to the stout in spirit, regardless of party, to all who respond to the scriptural call be strong and of good courage, be not afraid, neither be dismayed.
CONAN: This speech, one of many included on a CD that accompanies a new book by presidential historian Robert Dallek and journalist Terry Golway. It's called LET EVERY NATION KNOW: JOHN F. KENNEDY IN HIS OWN WORDS.
Later in the program, an update from the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. A jury is now considering life or death for the confessed 9/11 terrorist.
But first an audio journey with one of America's most eloquent presidents. If you have questions about John F. Kennedy's use of language or a Kennedy speech that resonates for you today, give us a call, 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com. Authors Robert Dallek and Terry Golway join us here in studio 3A, and it's nice to see you both.
Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Co-author, LET EVERY NATION KNOW): Thank you.
Mr. TERRY GOLWAY (Co-Author, LET EVERY NATION KNOW): Likewise.
CONAN: That excerpt we just heard from Kennedy's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1960, he uses a kind of elevated rhetoric that politicians today seem to stay clear of, if they even know how to use it in the first place. Robert Dallek, why do you think?
Mr. DALLEK: Well, the country was, to borrow a phrase from the ‘70s when Jimmy Carter was president, there was a sense of a morass. The Soviets had stolen a march on the United States in space technology with Sputnik. There was something that came to be called the missile gap during the campaign and there was kind of demoralization and Kennedy felt part of his mission was to elevate the spirits of the country.
He was the youngest man ever running for the White House and there was the feeling that he could bring a kind of freshness, a certain new tone to things, and so his rhetoric conformed to this kind of optimism.
CONAN: And Terry Golway, he benefited from a comparison with his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, of course, a man of no small education and accomplishment himself, yet a much more plain-spoken fellow.
Mr. GOLWAY: Yes, very much so. In fact, there really hadn't been a truly good speaker in the White House since Franklin Roosevelt. Harry Truman had many good qualities, too, but he was not known as a speaker and Dwight Eisenhower was not either. But, of course, his last speech did give us a phrase that we remember today, the military industrial complex, probably the only phrase that he is remembered for in terms of being president.
CONAN: Well, as president in general, he said a few important things, too but as president perhaps you're right. But even in that little clip we heard, you heard some rhetorical devises that Kennedy used again and again, the assonance, the short phrases. You point out in the book that he studied the Gettysburg Address.
Mr. GOLWAY: Yes, yes. In fact, he thought of that as his rhetorical model, and one of the other things that you see is the scriptural call. You know, the prophet Isaiah was sort of the official prophet of the New Frontier, and often Kennedy is quoting scripture in a way that is, you know, very reverent and very relevant to his text.
CONAN: And there is also an assumption on Kennedy's part of whom he is addressing. These are people who he, his audience he accepts as as educated as he is.
Mr. DALLEK: Absolutely. His invocation of American presidents, of also all sorts of famous literary figures, his assumption is that he's speaking to an educated audience and he's in a sense elevating the conversation, the discussion. Instead of speaking down to the country, he's speaking up to them. And also I should point out, Eisenhower was 70 years of age. At that point, he was the oldest man to have served in the White House, and Kennedy was going to be the youngest ever elected, and so the contrast was really quite striking.
CONAN: We're gonna listen to an example of what we were just talking about. This is one of the most famous speeches of the Kennedy administration, his address in Berlin, Germany. This is a clip that includes a famous phrase you may remember, as well as an excerpt from what followed.
(Soundbite of John F. Kennedy's Berlin speech)
President KENNEDY: Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner.
There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say, there are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it's true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass Sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.
(Soundbite of cheers)
CONAN: And, Robert Dallek, at the beginning of that speech, Robert, John Kennedy says two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was and a phrase in Latin which he assumes his audience knows. I am a citizen of Rome.
Mr. DALLEK: Right. Well, remember, also, he's speaking now to a German audience, and he assumes that the Europeans are better educated in that kind of classical literature and memory than Americans would be. But, you know, that speech was such a militant statement of anti-Cold War thinking, and that was not his general style, but he caught the spirit of that moment, and of course, that crowd was almost hysterical.
In fact, some of the people on the podium, the Germans with him, wondered whether the hysteria of the crowd signified that they could have another Nazi regime in Germany because there was such a kind of emotionalism to it. I was in Germany talking about my Kennedy book a few years ago, and there was a display at the German Historical Museum, Berlin Historical Museum, and the crowds have turned out. To this day, there's a kind of affection for Kennedy, a kind of attraction to him that resonates with this speech that he made in '63.
CONAN: And, Terry Golway, another of the classic rhetorical devises, a couple of them, repetition. Some who say, blah-blah-blah, let them come to, and that some who say. Who are these some he keeps referring?
Mr. GOLWAY: Exactly, exactly. You know, it reminds me of the anecdote about Richard Nixon, where William Safire once said that it was his job, when he was a speechwriter, to go in to President Nixon and say, Mr. President, you should do the tough thing. You should do the popular thing. You should do the popular thing because that was one of the things Nixon always said.
Some tell me I should do the popular thing.
CONAN: The popular thing.
Mr. GOLWAY: And in Kennedy's speeches, constantly -- people are always saying something. Some people are always saying something. But he knows the truth, and it's very effective.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And Steve, Steve's on the line with us from Portland, Oregon.
STEVE (Caller): Hi. I appreciate your program. I heard that his famous line, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, was borrowed from Cicero, Rome's great politician. Is that true? And I'll take my answer off the line.
CONAN: Carthago Delinda Est, I would have given you, but this other one, I don't know. Terry?
Mr. GOLWAY: You know, I've heard that it actually was an adaptation of something that Calvin Coolidge said. So, you know, frankly, I don't know the answer to that question.
CONAN: Okay, we'll see if we can find one on the internet for you and if we can believe it, Steve. But the question, I guess, that raises, Robert Dallek, is that in those set piece speeches, how much of that was John Kennedy and how much was that his famous speechwriter Ted Sorensen?
Mr. DALLEK: Sorensen, yeah. It wasn't simply Sorensen who wrote for him. He had a lot of people who would contribute to his speeches. But, you know, in the final analysis, these were Kennedy's speeches because he would take them and he would mold them to his style, to his needs. They understood what he wanted. Sorensen was very much a reflector of Kennedy's ideas and mood, attitude, and he was a masterful speechwriter in that regard, and they were sort of joined at the hip when it came to creating these speeches.
CONAN: But a good speechwriter writes to his speaker's rhythms, his speaker's base of knowledge -- doesn't get outside of that very much.
Mr. DALLEK: True, but some are more successful than others and I would say the Kennedy's speechwriters were among the most successful, I think, in modern American presidential history.
CONAN: The CD does include some examples of the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates, where he's clearly speaking, you know, off the cuff and not -- though he's been prepped a lot to what to say to certain answers. But I found very few examples of the repartee with the press corps, for which he was also famous. He was a guy who could charm the media as well as tell a pretty good joke.
Mr. DALLEK: Absolutely, he was. In fact, if you watch the television clips, he was the first -- he pioneered live television news conferences and he was told by a lot of advisors, don't do it. You might blunder, make mistakes. It could undermine you and your administration.
CONAN: Commit policy by mistake.
Mr. DALLEK: That's right, and he knew that TV was his ally. And that it was the sort of medium that he could use to a very good effect. Indeed, that first debate, people who heard it on the radio said they thought Nixon had won. Those who watched it on television were convinced that Kennedy had won, because somebody said that Nixon looked like a chipmunk or a -- someone who was really with that five o'clock shadow, that he just -- alongside of Kennedy, his appearance was just -- couldn't match Kennedy's.
CONAN: As you point out, partly a result of an illness that he contracted after banging his knees, so getting out of a car in North Carolina may have been the defining event of the 1960 presidential election. Anyway.
Mr. DALLEK: He had been in the hospital.
We'll have more examples of the Kennedy oratory after we come back from a break and more of your calls as well: 800-989-8225. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Next to Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy is widely recognized as perhaps this country's most eloquent president. Today we're hearing about a new biography of JFK, and listening to the former president in his own words. Our guests are Robert Dallek and Terry Golway. They're the authors of LET EVERY NATION KNOW: JOHN F. KENNEDY IN HIS OWN WORDS.
Of course, you're invited to join us. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. And let's talk to Dave. Dave's with us from Sunnyvale, California.
DAVE (Caller): Oh, thank you. I have a quick question, but it's -- would like to chat about it. And that is, is oratory of value today? We have presidents in the last few decades that are called the great communicators, like Reagan, or presidents who connect to people emotionally, like Clinton. But, on the other hand, I wouldn't quite call them, necessarily, the bastions of great oratory. Is it of value? Is it -- is the problem -- is there a problem that it is not a value in politics today, or is that the reason why there is not as much, or the speechwriters are not being paid enough?
CONAN: I think we'll (unintelligible) for that one -- Robert Dallek?
Mr. DALLEK: Well, you know, there's a famous anecdote that after Franklin Roosevelt died, somebody stopped Mrs. Roosevelt on the street and said, I miss the way your husband used to speak to me about my government. And it speaks volumes about the connection FDR made to the mass of the society, with those fireside chats. People felt as if he had come into their living room, he was pater familias. He was their uncle, their, a member of their family.
Now, I think this is a political skill that lots of politicians don't seem to have, including the current incumbent. He's actually alienated so many people. There are people, of course, who do admire him and like him. But by and large, I think there are a lot more people who now find him distasteful. And if he had that talent, if he had that capacity to speak to people in rounded periods in ways that could engage them, could make them feel that he's on their side, see I think that's the key. People want to feel a connection.
Reagan had that. Reagan was extraordinarily adept at, and he was called the great communicator. So I don't think it's a lost skill by any means. It depends on the individual president.
CONAN: Yet Ronald Reagan, Terry Golway, did not use that, that more formal rhetoric that John Kennedy, that we hear in John Kennedy.
Mr. GOLWAY: No, no, he didn't at all. In fact, you know, the oratory had changed, I think, between the time Kennedy was president and the time Reagan was president. But certainly, Reagan was capable of giving wonderful speeches. Several come to mind, the speech at the D-day memorial, 40th anniversary of D-Day, the speech after the Challenger, his final address as president. These were speeches that, I think, stand the test of time and stand the test of high rhetoric.
Bill Clinton was an articulate president and remains articulate. But, of course, the only phrase that we remember from his presidency is one that, maybe you can say on an NPR station, but I'm not going to, but one memorable phrase.
CONAN: He said it on NPR, I think I was there, I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky.
Mr. GOLWAY: All right, well, you said it. But that, we're certainly not going to see that phrase on his grave, whereas, at least I don't think so.
CONAN: Maybe his political grave, had been in his first term. But that's another issue. Dave, it's an interesting point and, obviously, you know, the phrase that comes to mind, Dave's point, is the phrase mere rhetoric. You think of the phrase mere rhetoric as dismissing somebody else's high-flown statement, but Churchill spoke rhetoric. This, the words can be marshaled to the most important aspirations of man.
Mr. DALLEK: Dave, what I would say to you is that, having studied so many of these presidents and taught about presidential history for a number of years, if you ask people, what do they remember about a Theodore Roosevelt, a Woodrow Wilson, an FDR? And do you think that they remember that TR was the architect of the Food and Drug Administration, or that Wilson set up the Federal Reserve, or that even FDR was the architect of the Wages and Hours Bill? How many people would remember now that Lyndon Johnson put Medicare in place? See, I don't think they remember the particular acts of a president, the legislation, which of course, is the most important legacy they leave behind.
What they remember is their rhetoric. What they remember, whether there was inspirational speech or some kind of phrase that continues to capture the public's imagination.
CONAN: Interestingly, and one more point on this before we let Dave, our caller, go. The president of the United States has two functions. Normally, in most governments, occupied by two people, he's the head of government, the Prime Minister in most governments, and the head of state, constitutional monarch in England, presidents in Israel and various , and Germany and other various countries like that. And I think to some degree, Robert Dallek, what you're saying is, that people remember the president as chief of state making those grand speeches, rather than his policies as Prime Minister.
Mr. DALLEK: Yeah, because they're not so drawn to politics and to the nitty-gritty that goes on in order to get legislation passed and these measures are often remain controversial to some degree or other.
But I think what inspires people is that there was a president who spoke to our better angels, who offered a kind of optimistic view of the country's future. So I think you can count on the fingers of one hand a TR, you see, an FDR, a Kennedy, a Reagan, people who spoke in ways that the country's -- and a Thomas Jefferson. A George Washington. There are phrases from those presidents that still resonate with the public.
CONAN: And we've gotten an answer from our library. Dan Anstead tells us, fittingly, Kennedy's famous ask not line did derive indirectly from Cicero. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Warren Harding had used variations of it as well. Of course, we all remember Warren Harding's -- what? We don't remember anything about Warren Harding. In fact, he never said anything. So that's the problem: he didn't say it too well. Dave, thanks very much for the call.
DAVE: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And let's turn now to Jim(ph). Jim's with us from Somers Point in New Jersey.
JIM (Caller): Yeah, hi. I have two points. The first one is I thought that Kennedy kind of -- I don't want to say yell, but he really tried to project his speeches, even on the television, almost like an Ethel Merman before there were microphones on the stage. And I was curious as to whether he got his, you know, chops, you know, in the Senate where he had to do like stump speeches, you know, at places that didn't have microphones. But he always seemed to yell.
CONAN: Yeah, Terry Golway, again, comparison to Reagan, not just the high flung rhetoric, but that pitch of his voice was definitely aimed at the last row of the balcony.
Mr. GOLWAY: Very forceful, very forceful. Now, if you remember the inaugural address, which we opened the program with, was given at the Los Angeles Coliseum to an audience of 80,000 people. It was an outdoor arena. The Berlin speech, of course, where he's shouting also, but he's shouting because he's angry. But I suppose that some of the other speeches, he has that very forceful delivery. But if you listen to the speech he gave after the Bay of Pigs or during the Cuban missile crisis, those speeches he is very somber and the pitch and tone of his voice is very different.
Mr. DALLEK: The Civil Rights Speech he gives in June of 1963, one can hear the emotion. It comes through. There's sincerity to it, and I think that's what he's trying to convey, this is how I really feel, this is what I mean.
CONAN: Jim, hang with us for a second. We're just going to hear a clip from the Civil Rights Speech. And this is Kennedy, this is -- just earlier that day he'd called out the Alabama National Guard to allow to black students to enter the University of Alabama, over the objections of Governor George Wallace.
(Soundbite of Kennedy's Civil Rights speech)
President KENNEDY: Today we're committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops. It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color.
CONAN: The fade in and fade outs that you're hearing from these excerpts are from the CD we've taken. We don't internally edit the President of the United States. But, Jim, you can hear a very different tone there, can't you?
JIM: Yeah, I guess maybe, you know, I stand corrected. I guess his voice just carried. And, you know, some people, their voices carry. But like LBJ, I guess, it was like the end of that type of booming, almost, politician that seemed to be able to, you know, like I say, be on a stage without a microphone. And, you know, maybe that was part of their success and that's why they got there. I mean, Ted Kennedy kind of, to me, you know, has a booming voice.
CONAN: Same kind of a deal, yeah, and you hear him -- I've covered his campaigns and seen a lot of his stump speeches and, indeed, he does have that same form of address. Thanks very much for the call, Jim, appreciate it.
CONAN: One of the things, Robert Dallek, you point out in the book, though, is John Kennedy started out as a politician. He was unfavorably compared to, of course, to his grandfather, Honey Fitz, the mayor of Boston.
Mr. DALLEK: Yeah, nobody ever thought that he was going to be a glad hander, a fellow who could go into taverns and barbershops and clap you on the back. And he was rather shy. And he was more cerebral than his grandfather, certainly. And not someone who initially enjoyed that kind of exchange. But he grew into it. He came to love politics and campaigning and especially because people responded to him so affectionately.
CONAN: Now let's talk with Marcus, Marcus calling us from Atlanta, Georgia.
MARCUS (Caller): Yes, hi, Neal. I'm a faithful listener to your program and enjoy it very much.
CONAN: Thank you for that.
MARCUS: The comment that I have is I was working at Cape Canaveral in 1961 when President Kennedy came there and gave his famous speech about landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And that really inspired those of us who were working in the space program. I was on the workman's program at the time. And it really inspired most of us to accomplish that goal by the end of the decade. And it became a national goal. And it not just inspired us, but it inspired the whole nation. I kind of wish we had a national goal now.
CONAN: Well, Marcus, I'm going to hang up on you because your phone is doing tricks on you. But thank you very much for the call.
Interestingly, Robert Dallek, I guess Lyndon Johnson actually enacted that promise made by John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon and return him safely by the time the decade was out. And of course it happened during Richard Nixon's presidency. Nevertheless, other presidents have made extravagant promises that we don't tend to remember quite so well.
Mr. DALLEK: Well, you know, what's interesting about John Kennedy's domestic record, so to speak, is that he put on the agenda a number of things which were not enacted or realized in his lifetime. And then, of course, Johnson was the one who put across civil rights and voting rights and put across the big tax cut that Kennedy wanted. Put across Medicare and put across federal aid to elementary, secondary, and higher education.
But nevertheless, Kennedy gets a certain credit for it because he did initiate this. He put it on the agenda. And so there is an inclination to give him a certain credit.
CONAN: And to be fair, the current president has said the goals should be return to the moon and then onto Mars. Yet, perhaps as a result of the lower quality of his rhetoric perhaps, people don't remember it quite so well.
Mr. DALLEK: Well, it's also, I think, Neal, the fact that, is this going to be realized? Can one, I mean, that, it was so different. You know, this was going to be the exploration of outer space. I mean, this was so bold. And could anyone imagine getting a man to the moon? It was really something very dramatic and really fit in brilliantly with Kennedy's idea of a new frontier.
CONAN: We're talking about the new book and CD LET EVERY NATION KNOW: JOHN F. KENNEDY IN HIS OWN WORDS. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Here's an email we got from Betty in Chester, California: “I don't know when or where he said it, but I have always liked, 'Forgive your enemies, but remember their address.'”
Mr. DALLEK: That does sound like something John Kennedy would say, yes.
CONAN: Let's get Dan on the line. Dan's calling from Tallahassee.
DAN (CALLER): Yes, thank you. What a great topic.
John Kennedy famously said, addressing Nobel Laureates in 1962, that it was the most extraordinary collection of talent gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. I was interested to see, it was so clever, but the National Portrait Gallery in Washington has the typewritten speech that he gave, and then that phrase, that quote, is in inter-lineation in John Kennedy's hand. Now, does that mean that truly those were his words, or does that mean he was just a master of the historical record?
CONAN: Which one of you wants -- You're pointing at each other. Robert Dallek.
Mr. DALLEK: Well, I think he was, I think those were his own words and I think he was in many ways a master of the historical record. He knew history. He had studied it. He thought about it. It was important to him. And in making judgments on what he should do, for example, he was very skeptical during that Bay of Pigs operation, had grave doubts about it and had even graver doubts when the military was counseling him to invade or bomb Cuba during the missile crisis. And he just didn't trust the military. He didn't trust these generals.
And knew because of the historical record. Could they be trusted to project accurately what would happen if we bombed, and of course, he turned out to be absolutely right because we could have ended up in a nuclear war, had it been for, had it not been for JFK's decision.
CONAN: And sometimes, people who've had experience as being a second lieutenant often have a clear image of the competence of their military superiors than those who most recently served as five star general.
Mr. DALLEK: I couldn't agree more.
DAN: Fascinating man. Thank you so much.
CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
Let's see if we can get Philip in quickly. Philip from Stonybrook in New York.
PHILIP (CALLER): Yes, hi. Hi. Nice to be on the air with you.
CONAN: Thank you.
PHILIP: I wanted to point out something, emphasize something that's always spoken to me about John Kennedy's speeches. And that is, not just the words that he said, but where those words came from. That you can feel, or at least I could always feel, that it's coming from a very, very deep place in his heart and in his soul. It's almost like communicating a voice from beyond him, from a higher consciousness.
You spoke about Isaiah. A prophetic, I call it a prophetic voice. It's a voice that's fused with a firm desire for the advancement of the betterment of human kind. I think we heard it in John Kennedy. We heard it in the later years of Bobby Kennedy. We heard it in Martin Luther King. You can feel it in that tremor in his voice. That it's coming from a deep, open, very honest place.
And I think it calls for the evolution of consciousness in the human race. And I think that's why people all over the world loved him as much as they did, why he inspired nation's all over the world and why so many people cried all over the world when he died.
CONAN: Philip, I'm not sure anybody in this room is going to have anything useful to add to what you've just said, so were just going to take a break. Thank you.
PHILIP: Okay, thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.
Mr. DALLEK: Beautifully said.
CONAN: We're going to take a short break and, again, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We're going to finish our conversation with the authors of a new biography on John F. Kennedy, in his own words.
Back after a break, I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
We continue the words of President John Kennedy. He, of course, served during the Cold War, during some very tense moments in the Cold War. June 10, 1963, he spoke about the fear of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.
(Soundbite of Cold War era speech)
President KENNEDY: Some say that it is useless to speak of peace or world law or world disarmament and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it.
But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitudes as individuals and as a nation. For our attitude is as essential as theirs. First, examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.
CONAN: Robert Dallek, earlier we heard John Kennedy's famous speech at Berlin. This addressing the Cold War from a very different point of view.
Mr. DALLEK: Yes, this is a dramatic departure from what he said in Berlin. Of course, this came before. But he was very concerned about the possibility of nuclear war and, of course, was the architect of the Test Ban Treaty with Kruschev, the Soviets. He saw this as a landmark moment in his presidency and it certainly was a step on the road to détente and away from the possibility of a nuclear exchange.
So, he was intensely concerned to bring about some kind of accommodation with the Soviet Union that would preserve not just the United States and the Soviets, but the whole world from what was seen as a nuclear, potential nuclear holocaust.
CONAN: And by this time in his presidency, of course, he knew that he was speaking from a position of strength, vis a vis the Soviet Union, not as he believed during his presidential campaign, from a position of weakness.
Mr. DALLEK: Exactly. And also, they had the Cuban missile crisis behind them, in which essentially they had defeated the Soviet impulse to put missiles in Cuba and to change the military balance, give the Soviets an advantage which they had not had before. And so yeah, he was very self confident and was able to speak forcefully and persuasively, I think, to millions of people in this country.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Francesca. Francesca calling us from San Antonio.
FRANCESCA (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.
I just wanted to say I wondered if we are too jaded or self consciously ironic to appreciate an oratorical style like JFK's, or even a presidential candidate like JFK in today's world.
CONAN: What do you think, Terry Golway?
Mr. GOLWAY: You know, I think the caller has an absolute point. I think that we are jaded and we prize irony. Of course, John Kennedy also appreciated irony. But I think that's true, that if a president tried to get up there and give a speech with that tone of voice that we talked about before where he's almost yelling, I think he would be skewered by columnists and by humorous late night comics.
FRANCESCA: Thank you.
CONAN: All right, Francesca. Thank you very much.
Here's an email question from Harry in South Carolina. “I don't recall a president as adept as Bill Clinton at speaking extemporaneously. How good was Kennedy at talking on his feet? His halting style seemed to make him less impressive in that setting.”
Mr. DALLEK: He was exceptionally good speaking on his feet, and one can see that. Again, I come back to those press conferences, which were live, weren't canned. Of course, he prepared himself, had thought about the issues he would be asked about. But he's very adept. He's witty. He's charming. The reporters loved him. They were very much engaged by him. And so was the country. It was a great success. And it spoke a great deal about his spontaneity.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get Richard on the line, Richard in San Antonio.
RICHARD (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
RICHARD: I just had a comment rather than a question. I'm retired Air Force. And I retired from a base that, it's a little-known fact that John F. Kennedy spoke at the headquarters building of that base the day before he was assassinated. In fact, the podium that he spoke from is in the headquarters building of that base.
The thing that was interesting to me, I was just a small child when he was assassinated, but the thing that was interested to me was I saw the video, I believe it was the hat over the wall speech. I could be mistaken about that. But I saw the video and I was able to pinpoint the exact spot in front of the headquarters building that he spoke from. And the podium was in a museum on that base. And I actually helped move that podium from the museum into the headquarters building to avoid having it moved to the Air Force museum in Ohio. But the thing that was interesting to me was it was such a, it was almost surreal to stand there and actually be able to reach out and touch a podium that was such an incredible part of history like that.
And I'll just take any comments off the air.
CONAN: Okay, Richard. Thanks very much for the call. Terry Golway, is he right about the speech?
Mr. GOLWAY: Yes. In fact, that's the last Kennedy speech we have in the book in which he talks about, again, he revisits the topic of the moon because, of course, Texas was the capital of space flight. And he says, you know, he quotes, actually he quotes the Irish poet Yates, I believe, where he talks about throwing his hat over the wall. And that was how they got encouraged to go over the wall.
Actually, Frank O'Connor, the Irish short story writer. He said, well, we've thrown our hat over the wall of space. And we're going to climb over that wall. And that's how he concludes that speech.
CONAN: Now we know how that lectern managed to stay at that particular Air Force base in Texas.
Thank you both very much for joining us today. We really appreciate your time. Their book is called LET EVERY NATION KNOW: JOHN F. KENNEDY IN HIS OWN WORDS. More speeches, photographs and an excerpt from the book are at our web site, NPR.org, if you'd like to look.
The authors are presidential historian Robert Dallek. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. DALLEK: Thank you.
CONAN: And journalist Terry Golway joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks for your time.
Mr. GOLWAY: Thank you.
CONAN: When we come back, the closing arguments in the Zacarias Moussaoui sentencing trial.
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