Executive Rhetoric and the American Presidency

This complete module with all materials may be downloaded as a PDF here.

Linda Moss Mines

Girls Preparatory School

Chattanooga, Tennessee

This module was developed and utilized for an eleventh- to twelfth-grade advanced placement United States Government and Politics class to address the AP syllabus topic "Presidential Powers." However, the module could easily be adapted or used in a standard or AP United States history class, U.S. foreign policy class, or twentieth-century U.S. history class.

Estimated module length: Two sixty-minute classes (or two hours) and potentially a third sixty-minute class. Individual components of the module may also be utilized in history courses when the event that precipitated the speech occurs chronologically in the syllabus.

Franklin D. RooseveltHarry S. TrumanJohn F. Kennedy

Lyndon B. JohnsonGeorge W. Bush

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and George W. Bush. Sources: Wikipedia at https://tinyurl.com/qg596om and American Rhetoric at https://tinyurl.com/qdwsm7.


Current high school juniors and seniors were born post-2000 and have little or no memory of a political world without social media postings on Twitter and Instagram. The nature of today’s social media and the immediacy of the varied news media’s responses, analyses, and evaluations are vastly different from the past media coverage provided by newspapers, other print media, radio, and early television. Although political speeches today are still carefully scripted, twenty-first-century presidents and other elected officials are often asked to comment on issues in an unscripted and media-controlled forum and, at times (see the final example in the module), provide instant commentary in ways that are different than the past. Still, in some ways, presidential use of rhetoric as a political tool has not changed.

This module is designed to introduce students to four (and an optional fifth) important historical speeches and provide a method for analyzing word choice and the subtle messages in each speech. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe so ably noted, “If you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words.” Even with rapid media coverage today, presidential use of rhetoric to achieve political objectives remains highly important and worthy of attention in civic and history classrooms.


Students will:

Learn the classical meaning of the term “rhetoric” through application and analysis of select presidential addresses.

Identify the key statements in the following historical speeches: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Infamy Speech,” Harry S. Truman’s Speech on Korea, John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Lyndon B. Johnson’s "Why Vietnam?" speech, and George W. Bush’s Evening Address, September 11, 2001.

Analyze each speech to determine specific phrases that conveyed to U.S. citizens and to the “enemy” or potential aggressor the proposed course of action, and the fundamental principles governing the U.S. response in the particular situations that constituted the causes of the presidential addresses.

Discuss and critique why specific phrases were carefully constructed for each speech and how a substantially different meaning might have been conveyed through different word usage.

Prerequisite knowledge

This module was developed with an awareness that many contemporary students understand the power of rhetoric, whether used in the realm of politics, intellectual thought, or consumer marketing. Although it is assumed that AP-level students will have some general knowledge of the four or five presidents whose rhetoric is being analyzed, it is also assumed that most will have little specific knowledge of the international context for each of the speeches and, in many cases, the effects of the presidential policies these speeches helped create. Before using any of the speeches with students, instructors are advised to introduce basic contextual information regarding events that preceded each selection chosen for the classroom. More interesting analysis and subsequent discussion of presidential rhetoric on the part of students will probably be more likely to happen without too much prior discussion of subsequent presidential policies called for or implemented as a result of the speeches.

Module introduction: Words Make the Man (day one)

Editor's note: This activity is recommended before both instructors who teach a self-contained version of the module and teachers who integrate specific speeches and accompanying rhetorical analyses into chronologically organized history classes utilize any presidential primary source materials.

Immediately after entering class, provide students with a definition of the term "rhetoric": The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques (from Oxford Living Dictionaries).

Then, ask students to respond to the following situation: Imagine that you have been elected president.

What is your first priority in responding to current challenges posed against the United States? Articulate that priority in no more than two sentences.

Subsequent discussion questions:

How did you select your first priority?

Did you choose your priority based on a perceived threat against the United States? Internal or external threat?

What words or phrases did you select in an attempt to communicate clearly that priority?

Did you attempt to use an emotionally based connection? Purely reason? A combination?

As you developed your statement, did you reflect on speeches you have studied or have personally observed?

Did you develop your statement to be delivered for television or print media? Did you consider both options? How might your choice of words have been different for these two distinctly different forms of communication with the general public?

Students will be grouped into small discussion forums and asked to discuss the questions. After five to eight minutes, a spokesperson from each group will share the major points of discussion.

The instructor will then show a short scene from the movie Independence Day (http://youtu.be/9t1IK_9apWs). In the two-minute, forty-one-second-long scene, actor Bill Pullman as the U.S. president reacts to an alien threat by addressing the assembled military and civilians charged with thwarting an immediate threat to international security and survival.


Bill Pullman as fictional U.S. President Thomas J. Whitmore in the film Independence Day delivering a speech to assembled troops before a battle. Source: Technology Tell at https://tinyurl.com/y7svxv6o.

Ask students to identify the verbal and nonverbal components of the speech and the response garnered from the audience.

How did the president “connect” himself with the assembled multitude?

What specific words or phrases were used to create a desired outcome/response from the audience? 

How did tone and nonverbal elements impact the desired outcome?

Would the speech have had the same effect had it been printed and distributed instead of delivered orally?

Students will then be divided into four (or five) groups, with each group assigned (if the complete module is taught in consecutive class periods) an American presidential speech to analyze, through first reading, and then (as a homework assignment) reading, viewing, and listening again. Instructors should first provide brief contextual background information for all assigned speeches.

Pearl Harbor

Aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Roosevelt’s “Infamy Speech” occurred one day later. Source: History.com at https://tinyurl.com/ybw6rvd7.

If five or six speeches are introduced in one class period, the class should end with each student having the opportunity to have read the speech and briefly discussed it with other small group members.

Instructors should have individual group members watch and listen to the specific speech they are assigned and analyze the speech using the "Speech Analysis Guide" (attachment 6), responding to the questions in the guide.

Day two: Words and Policy—Connecting the Presidency with the People

Note: Text of the five presidential speeches with links to video and the Speech Analysis Guide can be downloaded at  this link.

Students will reassemble in groups upon entering the classroom. All students will be provided with online access to all four or five speeches.

FDR: http://youtu.be/YhtuMrMVJDk (full speech)

Truman: http://youtu.be/BsSqi6tY1F8 (excerpt of speech)

JFK: http://youtu.be/PEC1C4p0k3E (full speech)

LBJ: http://tinyurl.com/yavzb8na (excerpt of speech)

G.W. Bush: http://youtu.be/2K9mG7EIuyo (full speech)

After seven or eight minutes of group discussions for members to reach consensus or near-consensus, a spokesperson for each group (different from day one) will summarize the most significant phrases in each assigned speech.

Then, each group will provide either a video or audio excerpt of the key segment of the speech from a website such as www.youtube.com or http://www.americanrhetoric.com/.

Groups should limit the time for each critical speech excerpt to three to five minutes.

After a discussion of key questions focused on the specific president’s desired outcome, the class will evaluate the effectiveness of the speech (on a scale of 1–10).


President John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address on January 20, 1961. Source: YouTube at http://youtu.be/PEC1C4p0k3E.

In the final activity, students will be asked to respond to each of these two questions with a well-written paragraph of six–eight sentences:

Using at least two examples from the U.S. historical record, how important is the use of rhetoric in conveying the goals and objectives of the modern American presidency?

How has the immediacy of twenty-first-century media and/or social media impacted the importance of presidential communication of goals and objectives? 

The instructor will then ask each student to create a Twitter feed identifying the takeaway knowledge from this assignment. Tweets will be written and displayed on a board for analysis.

References and Resources

http://youtu.be/9t1IK_9apWs: This is the scene of the president’s speech from the movie Independence Day.

http://youtu.be/YhtuMrMVJDk: This is FDR’s "A Day that will Live in Infamy" speech.

http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/fdrpearlharbor.htm: This site contains the full text of FDR's speech.

http://youtu.be/BsSqi6tY1F8: This is Truman’s July 1950 Korean address.

Boller, Paul F. Jr., and Ronald Story. A More Perfect Union: Documents in U.S. History, Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.: This text contains Truman’s July 1950 Korean address.

http://youtu.be/PEC1C4p0k3E: This link is to JFK’s 1961 inaugural address.

http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=8032: This is the full text of JFK’s 1961 inaugural address from The American Presidency Project.

http://tinyurl.com/yavzb8na: This link is for LBJ’s "Why Vietnam?" speech from C-Span.

http://web.utk.edu/~mfitzge1/docs/374/SOV1965.pdf: This is an excerpt from LBJ’s "Why Vietnam?" speech from a University of Tennessee faculty page.

http://youtu.be/2K9mG7EIuyo: This link is for G. W. Bush’s September 11, 2001, evening address on YouTube.

http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911addresstothenation.htm: This is the full text of Bush’s address from American Rhetoric.