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Research on selected Robert F. Kennedy Presidential Campaign Speeches

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3683 words Published: 27th Aug 2021

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The aim of this thesis is to conduct research into a selection from Robert F. Kennedys 1968 presidential election campaign speeches, in order to outline the key features of his utterances that earned him success in inspiring masses and frightened the power structure.

One of the reasons I have decided to conduct research into Robert F. Kennedy’s rhetoric is personal. The speech given on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. has drawn my attention to Robert Kennedy’s unique talent as a public speaker. The other reason is driven by the fact that there is a lack of literature directly discussing the aspects of Robert F. Kennedy’s rhetoric.

With this work I want to demonstrate that the domain of Robert F. Kennedy’s rhetoric is one worthy to be explored and to suggest the topic for further research.

In Chapter 3, entitled Corpus Description and Evaluation I describe the events and the target audiences of the analysed public addresses. In addition I also delineate the main linguistic aspects of the particular speeches and I explain in what terms the analysed material meets the research criteria.

In Chapter 4 I describe political speech as an individual genre within the domain of political discourse. I also explain from what perspective Robert Kennedy’s selected addresses fall under the genre of political speech.

I devote Chapter 5 to Robert Kennedy’s biography, character study and the historico-political background of the time for several reasons. During the analysis of the core research material I lay great emphasis on the contextual meaning (Firth 1957 in Downes 1998: 371) of Robert Kennedy’s utterances. Therefore I want to make the reader familiar with the context and the so called ‘member resources’ (Fairclough 1989) within the discourse of Robert Kennedy’s selected addresses. Fairclough describes these member resources as prototypes “which people have in their heads and draw upon when they produce or interpret texts – including their knowledge of language, representations of the natural and social worlds they inhabit, values, beliefs, assumptions, and so on. They are social in the sense that they have social origins – they are socially generated, and their nature is dependent on the social relations and struggles out of which they were generated.” (Fairclough 1989: 24)

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I regard Chapter 6 as the body of the thesis. This is the reason why its title is identical with the title of the thesis. Within this chapter I devote separate subchapters to the discourse strategies and different aspects of Robert Kennedy’s rhetoric. I describe the ways of addressing the target audiences, the forms of interaction between Robert Kennedy and his audiences and the methods of confrontation of the target audiences. I examine the degree of Robert Kennedy’s subjectivity and personal involvement in the selected addresses and I also introduce to the reader the means of persuasion applied by Robert Kennedy and his rhetorical idiosyncrasies. Chapter 6 as the most complex and most extensive unit of the thesis is intended to provide information essential for answering the research questions formulated in the following chapter.

Research Objectives, Hypotheses and Methodology

The main objective of the analysis of Robert Kennedy’s selected public addresses is to point out to what degree are his discourse strategies and rhetorical devices predetermined by factors like the topics covered, the speech events and the nature of the target audiences.

According to Stanley Fish there are two ways of language that have shaped the ‘history of Western thought’: “on the one hand, language that faithfully reflects or reports on matters of fact uncoloured by any personal or partisan agenda or desire; and on the other hand, language that is infected by partisan agendas and desires, and therefore colours and distorts the fact which it purports to reflect. It is the use of the second kind of language that makes one a rhetorician, while adherence to the first kind makes one a seeker after truth and an objective observer of the way things are.” (Fish 1989 in Richards 2008:6-7) I will analyse the discourse strategies and the rhetorical devices in Robert Kennedy’s selected public addresses with an additional intention to prove that – in terms by Fish – he is “a seeker after truth and an objective observer of the way things are.”

During the writing process I will concentrate my effort on answering the following research questions:

Are the discourse strategies and rhetorical devices predetermined by the topic rendered by the speaker?

I would like to build my hypothesis on Halliday’s statement that “all language functions in contexts of situation and is relatable to those contexts. The question is not what peculiarities of vocabulary, or grammar or pronunciation can be directly accounted for by reference to the situation. It is which kinds of situational factor determine which kinds of selection in the linguistic system.” (Halliday 2009: 94) Through my research I will attempt to prove that Robert Kennedy’s rhetorical devices and discourse strategies in his selected utterances are predetermined by situational factors like the topic, the speech event and the nature of the target audience. I hereby underline that I will analyse the contextual meaning (Firth 1957 in Downes 1998) of Robert Kennedy’s utterances in order to substantiate my theory of predetermination.

From the methodological perspective, I subject the research material to a qualitative political discourse analysis. I will conduct a critical reading of the transcripts of the selected public speeches and simultaneously listen to the audio recordings of the addresses in order to outline also those aspects of Robert Kennedy’s utterances which cannot be exposed only through the analysis of their transcripts. These are especially the paralinguistic features, like the tone of voice, intonation, gestures etc. The audio recordings will help me to clarify ambiguous situations where the question – ‘what is said?’ will not allow for any adequate judgements.

In order to avoid lengthy repetitions of the titles of the selected speeches I have decided to deploy an indexing method. Therefore I will further refer to the University of Kansas address as Speech A, to the Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King as Speech B and to the Cleveland City Club address as Speech C. Through the research I will refer to Robert Francis Kennedy as Robert Kennedy or RFK.

The core research material has been selected according to the following research criteria:

  • public speeches with a classical rhetorical organizational pattern
  • public speeches delivered to target audiences of different nature
  • addresses with various speech events
  • addresses with various topics of moral values
  • utterances free of partisan agendas

In my work I predominantly rely on the following literature:

  • The factual information for Robert Kennedy’s biography, character study and the historico-political background of the time I retrieve from Robert Kennedy and his Times (1985) written by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and from RFK: His Life and Death (1968) written by Jay Jacobs. The book RFK: Collected Speeches (1993) edited and introduced by Edwin O. Guthman and C. Richard Allen contains valuable information about the events and the context of the selected public addresses.

The theoretical knowledge for the analysis of the discourse strategies and rhetorical devices in Robert F. Kennedy’s selected public addresses I gain from the following works:

  • Language and Power (1989) by Norman Fairclough is an especially useful source for critical discourse analysis as it contains several demonstrations of discourse analysis in practice. I use his model for the interpretation of the utterance meaning in the analysed material from the position of the analyst. I draw on his conception of the “member resources” within a discourse, which justifies my decision to introduce to the reader the historico-political context of the analysed material and some biographical facts about Robert F. Kennedy.

Meaning in Interaction: an Introduction to Pragmatics (1995) by Jenny Thomas provides me with the theoretical knowledge to decipher the illocutionary forces and the implicit meanings of Robert Kennedy’s particular utterances. Through the analysis of the selected addresses in Chapter 6 I rely on her model of interpreting illocutionary forces to understand the meaning of Robert Kennedy’s utterances depending on their context.

Language and Society (2009) by M.A.K. Halliday (edited by Jonathan J. Webster) furnishes me with the conceptions of the field, tenor and mode of the discourse, which allows me to identify, what is linguistically important in a given utterance in relation to its context. I build my hypotheses on Halliday’s theory that external factors determine the individual’s selections in the linguistic system. Through the whole analysis of the selected addresses in Chapter 6 I rely on the above theory to identify to what degree are Robert Kennedy’s utterances predetermined from a linguistic perspective by factors, like the topic rendered, the speech events and the nature of the target audiences.

Corpus Description and Evaluation

The analysed resource material of this thesis consists of a selection of three significant speeches of Robert F. Kennedy’s public addresses during his 1968 presidential campaign. Namely, in chronological order, the speech from March 18th, given at the University of Kansas, the Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King from April 4th, delivered in Indianapolis and the Remarks on the Mindless Menace of Violence in America, delivered at the Cleveland City Club on April 5th.

I would like to start the corpus description with some quantitative statistics about the analysed material.

The most extensive of the texts in subject is the University of Kansas address which consists of 3942 words and 17 386 characters without spaces, the second text, which is the transcript of remarks on Martin Luther King’s assassination is composed of 618 words, counting 2653 characters without spaces and the last one, the Cleveland City Club address comprises 1080 words and 4700 characters without spaces.

In the following pages of this chapter I will describe the analysed texts individually. My description will predominantly focus on the context behind the public addresses, including a portrayal of the setting and the occasion. At the end of the chapter I will also explain the reasons for integrating these particular speeches into the research.

The University of Kansas address (further referred to as Speech A, in abbreviated form: SA) was delivered by Robert F. Kennedy just two days after the announcement of his candidacy for the President of the United States. It was the second real public speech of his freshly started campaign. He came to Kansas with doubts about his popularity, since the state was largely rural with a conservative majority, where he, as a liberal and a critic of the military efforts in Vietnam, could not expect much affability. (Kennedy and Guthman and Allen, 1993: 323) To his and his staff’s surprise, their warm reception at the campuses disproved their assumptions. With twenty thousand people present, Robert Kennedy drew the largest crowd in campus history. (Kennedy and Guthman and Allen, 1993: 327) He came to the university to talk to young people, the group of citizens his campaign program predominantly aimed at. The purpose of his speech was to express his viewpoint towards the situation within the country and towards the War in Vietnam, to inform and confront his audience with the problems the country was facing and to persuade them to vote for him in the election.

As usual when talking to young people he began his address with his famous self-deprecating humour to set a friendly atmosphere and create a positive relationship with the target audience before he moved on to sensitive topics.

The points of his argument lined up in the following order: the polarization and violence within the country, the alarming conditions of poverty in certain areas of the country and the progress of the War in Vietnam.

The way Robert Kennedy renders the above mentioned issues is descriptive, with linear organisation of the topics covered. The style of addressing his audience could be characterised as direct, confrontational and contemplative. Robert Kennedy’s interaction with the target audience is most noticeable in this address.

This speech is argumentative and demonstrates a high degree of RFK’s personal involvement as he frequently asserts his own beliefs, demands and opinion. The persuasive strategy through argument dominates the address.

The Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King (further referred to as Speech B, in abbreviated form: SB) was delivered in Indianapolis in the evening of April 4th 1968. RFK was heading for Indianapolis to give a speech to a mostly black American community in the city ghetto as a part of the rally. Before boarding the plane he was told that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee. Right after their plane landed he was informed that Martin Luther King had died of the injury. The crowd had been gathering for the rally in the ghetto for one hour before Robert Kennedy arrived. They were already fired up, albeit they could not have heard any official news about the assassination. Some of them were armed and violent. Robert Kennedy was advised by the police representatives not to go there, because they would not be able to defend him if mob violence broke out. RFK decided to face the danger and talk to his audience, thus taking up the unpleasant role to be the first to inform them about the death of Martin Luther King.

Robert Kennedy’s words were meant from his heart. He alluded to the assassination of his brother. He alleviated the tension and literally tranquilized the audience. He asked the people to seek peace in their faith as a tribute to Martin Luther King’s legacy.

On this occasion RFK spoke to an audience of mostly black people from the ghetto of the city. His tone of voice was moderate. Every single word of his utterance showed empathy and his personal involvement in the issue. He used simple, but at the same time delicate language and short sentences built up from sophisticated words. He managed to draw the audience’s attention to terms like ‘love’, ‘wisdom’, ‘understanding’ and ‘compassion toward one another’.

His purpose was to shift the attitude of the crowd, to move and inspire them. He applied persuasion through emotions and through his own character. The style of the address is lyrical and emotional, obviously determined by the tragic event.

This speech was built up solely from Robert Kennedy’s own words. It was delivered without a written template, only from the memory of RFK’s own notes. For this reason this address shows several traits of extemporaneousness.

As a reaction to Martin Luther King’s assassination the whole country was in flames that night, there were violent demonstrations, riots and boycotts initiated by African-American communities for revenge. In Indianapolis there were no significant protests registered.

The Cleveland City Club Address (further referred to as Speech C, in abbreviated form: SC), was delivered by Robert Kennedy in Cleveland, Ohio on 5th April 1968.

After the Indianapolis speech on King’s assassination, RFK cancelled his oncoming campaign appearances. (Kennedy and Guthman and Allen 1993: 358) However he was persuaded by some African-American community leaders to keep his address, scheduled for the next day at the Cleveland City Club and to make it a plea for ending the violence. (Kennedy and Guthman and Allen 1993: 358)

RFK addressed his speech to a crowd of mostly white executives at the City Club. As usual, he conveyed his message in a moderate, soft tone of voice. The primary purpose of the speech was to express his concern about the violence in the country and to put the reasons for this growing violence in the country into focus.

The overall organisation of the topics is associative. The content of the speech is confrontational and contemplative. The beginning and closing paragraphs are built up from merely simple sentences, while the core of the address consists of complex philosophical units.

The style of RFK’s utterance is emotive for he attempted to persuade the target audience through emotions and through his own reasoning.

This is the most lyrical address of the given selection with numerous examples of figurative language.

My decision to include in the research exactly these three public speeches of Robert F. Kennedy during his 1968 presidential campaign was determined by several factors. During the process of selection I took into consideration the previously formed research hypotheses. This approach directed me to choose speeches which adequately demonstrate to what extent were the rhetorical devices used predetermined by the target audience, the speech event and the topics covered in them.

My first criterion was to select speeches that are organized according to the classical rhetorical pattern, that include introduction, argumentation and conclusion. Since all of the selected speeches are built on this pattern, they evidently meet the first criterion.

The second criterion for the selection was the target audience’s character. My firm intention was to analyse several of RFK’s public addresses delivered to audiences of a different nature. With the given selection I managed to adhere to the plan. The speech at the University of Kansas was delivered to students, a community of young people the predominant target group of Robert Kennedy’s campaign. The remarks on the assassination of Martin Luther King addressed mostly black uneducated ghetto people of various age groups. The Cleveland City Club speech was given in front of mainly white executives of a higher social class. The above brief descriptions of the target audiences of the selected speeches indicate substantial heterogeneity from social perspective. The size differences between the audiences are also remarkable, with the University of Kansas crowd as the largest and the Cleveland City Club attendees as the smallest.

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The third criterion for the selection was the event of the particular speeches. Here I also attempted to seek variability in order to provide more objective evaluations of the rhetorical devices determined by the event of the utterance. The University of Kansas speech was an ordinary political speech during Robert Kennedy’s campaign rally. He covered the main points of his program: the divisions, the poverty and the War in Vietnam. He explained why he was running for the presidency and asked for the audience’s support. The speech on King’s assassination was most affected by the occasion. Robert Kennedy could not deliver his pre-prepared speech instead he transformed the appearance into an honest tribute to Martin Luther King’s memory and legacy. The third speech, the Cleveland City Club address was still influenced by the happenings from the day before. Robert Kennedy again had to reformulate his initial message. Although he spoke about issues also included in his campaign proclamation, one can scarcely call his address an ordinary campaign speech. Not once he did mention his candidacy nor did he ask for any support directly. Briefly we can summarise the speech events as follows: an ordinary campaign rally at a university campus, an extemporaneous tribute to the legacy of an assassinated public leader in a city ghetto and a plea for reconciliation and non-violence in front of an audience of distinguished executives.

The fourth and the most important criterion for the selection was the content of the individual speeches. Hereby I admit a relatively higher degree of subjectivity, since in this case the criterion was considerably conditioned by my own interpretation of the messages. I attempted to choose those addresses from Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign speeches which most of all prove the extraordinary phenomena of his rhetoric. The University of Kansas speech was selected for his involvement, objectivity and for the emphasis of moral obligation over material values. The lyricism and spiritualism and the calming effect of the carefully chosen words in the Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King were all factors of great importance that determined my choice for this piece of rhetoric. The Cleveland City Club address is remarkable for Robert Kennedy’s concern about humanity. It is an emotive call for peace and reconciliation of mankind. I chose this utterance – in addition to its many unique qualities – especially for the philosophic thoughts and prophetic words it communicates, which – more than forty years later – still appear to be relevant.

The fifth criterion was to select speeches that are free of any partisan agendas and manifestations. Robert Kennedy in the selected addresses does not enforce any programs or any political ideologies he rather draws his audiences’ attention to the real conditions in the country which affect them all. Nonetheless he categorically distinguishes himself from hiding the truth in illusions and empty promises.

I was lead by the above assumptions during the selection of the core research material. I hope the fact that the selected speeches evidently meet all the criteria defined justifies my choice.


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