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.
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.
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.