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Political Speech Genre Description History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Before I start discussing political speech as a genre, due to the heterogeneity of Robert Kennedys analysed addresses it is necessary to make it clear in what terms I am going to treat his selected utterances as political speeches. As speech A, the University of Kansas address is a typical example of a pre-election campaign speech, this clarification is especially needed because of the particularities of the remarks on the assassination of Martin Luther King (speech B) and the Cleveland City Club address (speech C). Although speeches B and C are not ordinary presidential campaign speeches, thus primarily not intended to persuade the target audiences to vote for Robert Kennedy in the elections, they still fall under the domain of political discourse. In order to justify my assumption, I would like to refer to T. A. van Dijk’s statement that “whatever a politician says is thus by definition a form of political discourse; and whatever anybody says with a political aim (viz., to influence the political process, e.g. decision making, policies) is also a form of political discourse.” (van Dijk 2002: 217) Van Dijk claims that political discourse is not defined by the “topic or style, but rather by who speaks to whom, as what, on what occasion and with what goals.” (van Dijk 1997, 2002: 225) If we consider that in all three selected addresses a politician speaks publicly to his audience with an intention to persuade them, then they obviously fall under the domain of political discourse. Therefore we should regard them as political speeches.

Before we treat political speech as an individual genre it is appropriate to define the meaning of the term ‘genre’. Bhatia defines genre as “an instance of a successful achievement of a specific communicative purpose using conventionalized knowledge of linguistic and discoursal resources.” (Bhatia 1993: 14) He highlights communicative purpose as a factor that predominantly determines particular genre when he declares that “although there are a number of other factors, like content, form, intended audience, medium or channel that influence the nature and construction of a genre, it is primarily characterized by the communicative purpose(s) that it is intended to fulfil. (Bhatia 1993: 13) In terms of a political speech as a genre, this communicative purpose predominantly lies in persuasion, which is achieved through the speaker’s character, through arousing emotion in the target audience and through argumentation. In political speeches there is considerable emphasis on the perlocutionary act, defined by Downes (1998) in reference to Austin (1962) as “the act of producing an effect” on the hearer by uttering certain words (Downes 1998: 374) By the word ‘effect’ we may understand the phenomenon what Bakhtin refers to as “[…] actively responsive understanding with delayed action” when he claims that “sooner or later what is heard and actively understood will find its response in the subsequent speech or behavior of the listener.” (Bakhtin 1986: 69) This ‘delayed action’ is especially typical for political speeches since in most of the cases no immediate ‘action’ is required to be taken by the audience at the moment of the utterance.

If we consider political speeches from the perspective of abstract categories introduced by M. A. K. Halliday (2009) like the field of discourse, mode of discourse and tenor of discourse then we may state that the field, or in other terms the topic or the subject of political speeches is politics. In relation to the mode of the discourse, political speeches are most of the time both written and spoken. In relation to the tenor of the discourse we distinguish between two poles, the speaker and his audience. The relationship between them is imbalanced as the verbal communication is predominantly expected of the speaker and the audience act as recipients. This does not necessarily mean that there are no forms of interaction between the speaker and the audience of a political speech as the listeners may react to the speaker’s utterances by applause, as a form of their approval, or by clamour as a form of disagreement. Another characteristic of political speeches is that the topics rendered and the form is most of the time pre-prepared. In terms of classical rhetoric in political speeches there is great emphasis on the ‘invention’, “the discovery of the available means of persuasion.” (Aristotle in Richards 2008: 33)

Robert F. Kennedy’s Biography, Character Study and the Historico – Political Background of the Time

5.1 Biography

Robert Francis Kennedy was born as the seventh child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy in Brookline, Massachusetts on 20th November 1925. His parents were strict Catholics, especially his mother Rose, which had a strong impact on him. However the most influential member of the family was the father, Joseph. He insisted on success and competition and this was what he expected from his children above all. He once said: “We don’t want any losers around here. In this family we want winners. Don’t come in second or third – that doesn’t count – but win!” (Schlesinger 1985:15) The above lines clearly demonstrate what a challenge it meant to be a Kennedy. Actually the whole life of all the Kennedy children was significantly marked by a constant struggle to appeal to their father. Robert especially had this inner incentive to get his father’s attention and praise. He later remarked: “I was the seventh of nine children and when you come from that far down you have to struggle to survive.” (Schlesinger 1985: 24)

After attending Milton Academy he went to Harvard, but he interrupted his studies in order to join the Navy during the Second World War. He was assigned to active duty as a seaman second class aboard a newly commissioned destroyer, the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., named after his fallen brother. (Jacobs 1968: 48) Before he was engaged in any action the war ended, so he returned to Harvard to continue in his studies and receive a degree in government in 1948. The same year he applied for admission to the University of Virginia Law School, where he earned his degree in law in 1951.

He married Ethel Skakel, the daughter of the founder of Great Lakes Carbon Corporation in June 1950. They both were devoted Catholics and family oriented, so in a relatively short time they became the parents of eleven children.

Robert Kennedy’s political career started with managing his brother John’s senate campaign for Massachusetts. Later he became the member of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations lead by Senator Joseph McCarthy where he engaged himself in submitting reports about certain US allies that were supplying communist China with goods during the Korean War. After six months he resigned the committee due to some disagreements with the management. Encouraged by McCarthy’s subsequent downfall he rejoined the Senate’s permanent subcommittee and shortly became the leader of the Senate Rackets Committee investigating corruption within trade unions. When his investigation of Jimmy Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters Union was televised Robert F. Kennedy received nationwide recognition. He publicly accused Hoffa of corruption within the Union and malversation of almost 10 million dollars in union funds. This act was a clear evidence of his relentless fortitude when it came to fighting against injustice and corruption. Nevertheless, it also showed his bravery, since not many people ventured to uncover swindles of such influential figures of organised crime as Jimmy Hoffa was that time.

In 1960 he resigned from the Rackets Committee to manage his brother’s presidential election campaign. The campaign was successful and after John F. Kennedy became President of the United States, he appointed Robert Kennedy as Attorney General. Under his tenure the Department of Justice raised the number of convictions against organised crime by 800%. As Attorney General he became deeply committed to the Civil Rights Movement and to African-Americans fighting for equal rights. He also played an important role in constructing the Civil Rights Act of 19641 (see p. 34), proposed by President Kennedy, which was passed one year after his death. During the Kennedy Administration the two brothers closely worked together, Robert was not just the Attorney General, but also the President’s closest advisor. His contribution to the strategy to blockade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis opened the door to negotiations with the Soviet Union, thus preventing military actions and a potential nuclear war.

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd 1963 plunged Robert Kennedy into a deep despair which he could not overcome. The tragedy left him in agony and he sank into lethargy.

After a short period of serving under President Johnson he resigned his post of Attorney General to begin his campaign for the US senate from New York. The campaign was successful and Robert Kennedy won by a large number of votes. As the Senator of NY State he became deeply committed to the improvement of living conditions of the underprivileged and dispossessed citizens of the state and of the whole country. After his brother’s tragic death he became even more concerned with humanistic issues than before. He initiated programs to create job opportunities for the unemployed. He applied models to support private industry growth. Many of his models are still in use and successfully operating today. He also brought the facts about domestic issues, especially of poverty in rural areas, to the conscience of the nation. He was extremely touched by the children in the Mississippi delta suffering from hunger and he called on the government to take immediate action. During his Senate years he travelled to many points of the world as the advocate of civil rights to support and encourage the disadvantaged to stand up for their rights and for justice. As a Senator he got more and more concerned about the war in Vietnam and he started to advocate that the time had come to bring the war to an end. He began to openly oppose many of President Johnson’s policies-both foreign and domestic.

After a long period of hesitation, he announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States on March 16th 1968, he did so – according to his own words – merely to propose new policies than to oppose any man. In his campaign program he urged the resolution of both domestic and foreign issues. He wanted to end the polarization within the country between poor and rich, between blacks and whites. He wished to stop the riots in the streets and ensure equal rights for all citizens of the country. However, what he was most determined to do was to bring to an end the Vietnam War, which he thought had done extensive harm to the country both from a domestic and an international perspective. Robert Kennedy’s campaign started with remarkable success, he became extremely popular with citizens of African-American and Hispanic origin, but he also evolved into becoming a champion for all the poor and underprivileged. He managed to win the most crucial primaries in Nebraska and Indiana and his chances to win the election grew day by day. Unfortunately, on June 5th 1968 his life was taken by an assassin’s bullet right after he concluded his California primary victory speech in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

5.2 Character Study

Robert Kennedy was born as the seventh child of Rose and Joseph Kennedy. He was the smallest and thinnest of all the children. As a child he was shy, moody and quiet, however in certain cases very emotional. This mood was evidently the result of his loneliness caused by the isolation emerging from the big age difference between him and his much older brothers. His strong internal inducement to attract his father’s attention and appraisal caused him to become extremely competitive. His loneliness continued during his school years. He did not make many friends, since he had to change schools quite often. He was a very intelligent boy, but he had to work for what he achieved.

The tragic loss of Joseph Jr. in the war caused Joseph Kennedy to pay more attention to his third son that he had ever done before. Robert reacted with alacrity. It escalated the purposeful change in his character intended “to overcome doubts of his own worth and to win the love of the most important person in his life.”(Schlesinger 1985: 67) He had a strong need to relentlessly demonstrate that, like his father, he was a tough man. Despite the protective covering, his emotionalism remained as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. describes it “[…] both as concern and as vulnerability, expressed in moodiness, taciturnity or a certain brusque harshness, expressed too in persisting sympathy for other underdogs.” (Schlesinger 1985: 67) “He became in these years the scrappy adolescent, the relentless kidder, the ferocious competitor, the combative mick. Only those who knew him very well perceived the gentleness within.” (Schlesinger 1985: 67)

He took all his responsibilities and duties very seriously. Any task he engaged in, he strived to accomplish with maximal commitment to achieve the best result. The two successful campaigns of his brother John, the one for the senator of Massachusetts and the presidential election campaign in 1960, which he both managed, are clear evidence that he was an excellent strategist and a tireless fighter. Joseph Kennedy Sr. made a remark about his sons that perfectly describes Robert Kennedy’s attitude. He said: “Jack works as hard as any mortal man can. – Bobby goes a little farther.” (Jacobs 1968: 78) As a consequence of this derring-do, many of his antagonists criticised him for being ruthless, arrogant and rude when he carried out the functions of a relentless examiner in the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations and later in the Senate Rackets Committee. Young Robert Kennedy was extremely sensitive to injustice and had not opted to be “the perfect gentleman” in his investigative methods. (Jacobs 1968)

When it came to family the so called ‘ruthless investigator’ and the second most respected man in the Government of the Unites States changed to a gentle, loving and affectionate father and husband. Wesley Barthelmes2 (see p. 34) describes in an interview from 1969 Robert Kennedy’s sensitivity for young people and especially for his own children as follows: when his kids were around him or he got a call from them in the office, no matter who was sitting on the sofa talking to him about some profound issue, “he would sort of melt and his face would literally be wreathed in smiles, and he would listen […] the conversation would go on and it was apparent that it was not him who ended the conversation, but his child on the end of the line.”(Barthelmes in an interview with Roberta Green from 1969)

With the tragic death of President Kennedy on 22nd November 1963 Robert Kennedy’s life reached a breaking point that had a serious impact on the rest of his life. He could not overcome the pain caused by the loss of his brother. He held himself responsible for his brother’s death, being convinced the enemies he had made during the investigations and as Attorney General had killed his brother in revenge. The tragedy not only changed Robert Kennedy’s life but his character as well. His brashness and cockiness were fading and he happened to explore the regions of doubt and deeply search his soul. (Jacobs 1968: 99) It took him months to find his way again and by the time he returned to real life he had evidently become a different man. He understood that the death of his brother gave a new sense of purpose to the world when he addressed his audience with the words: “If President Kennedy’s life and death are to mean anything, we young people must work harder for a better life for all the people of the world.” (Jacobs 1968: 100-2) With this statement he expressed the legacy he became truly devoted to until the rest of his life, which was to make not just the United States, but the whole world a better place to live for all human beings. After his brother’s assassination he dedicated himself even more than ever before to the Civil Rights Movement and to the improvement of the living conditions of the underprivileged and dispossessed.

After he was elected to the Senate from New York State in 1964 he deeply engaged himself in domestic issues. He became troubled by the progress of the Vietnam War during his senate years. Ending the war in Vietnam was the main reason he decided to run for the presidency in 1968. First he was strongly determined not to oppose Lyndon Johnson the incumbent President. He knew his running would divide the Democratic Party and gain him enemies in the conservative wing of the party establishment. Eventually the escalation of the war in Vietnam made him change his decision and he announced that he would seek the presidency and run for his party’s nomination.

His life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, but his legacy survived in the hearts of people who love peace and humanism all over the world. Let us finish these lines with a quote from the eulogy of Robert F. Kennedy delivered by his brother Edward at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on June 8th 1968:

“My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. He should be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us, and what he wished for others, will some day come to pass for all the world.” (Edward M. Kennedy in Jacobs 1968: 3)

5.3 Historico – Political Background and the 1968 Presidential Election Campaign

The late 1960s were probably one of the most volatile periods in the history of the United States of America. The country was facing serious problems both on the domestic and international level. The escalation of the War in Vietnam lead to serious doubts about the legitimacy of the military intervention of the United States in Vietnam from the international perspective, and caused at least the loss of the prestige of the country on the foreign platform.  The question of the war not only meant a growing concern abroad, but also resulted in polarization of the country. Despite of the increasing numbers of anti-war protests all over the States, there were still many people supporting the administration of President Johnson and his handling of the military conflict. However the extreme divisions between the citizens of the country were predominantly caused by the growing gap between the rich and poor, between African-Americans and white citizens. These differences, in many cases reached extremes that paralyzed the country from within.

The threat of polarization and the excessive differences between the living standards of the citizens was already recognized during the Kennedy administration and several efforts were made to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, President Kennedy’s tragic death prevented these acts from being fully accomplished, however they still initiated momentous legislative changes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 proposed by President Kennedy, passed one year after his death meant a landmark in the history of the United States. In fact there had been not so much focus on improving the living conditions of black Americans since the end of the Civil War than during the Kennedy and the early Johnson administration. (Kennedy and Guthman and Allen 1993: 362) The founding of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission3 (see p. 34), the Civil Rights Act of 19654 (see p. 35), the War on Poverty, the appointment of a Negro to the Supreme Court and to the cabinet were all acts of great importance and unique value, however they did not necessarily mean any tremendous changes in practice.  In other ways, these initiatives did not fulfill minority expectations. Polarization between racial groups continued. Many people could not understand the reason for the violent demonstrations that were continuing all over the country. They believed blacks to be unappreciative of the efforts and expenses spent on the legislative changes and social programs. However they could not fully comprehend the difficult conditions the blacks still had to contend with in their struggle for existence, despite the many improvements undertaken by the government. During a televised press conference in Washington D.C. on 7th April 1968, Robert F. Kennedy pertinently described the situation and the differing views from the black citizens’ perspective. He spoke eloquently in behalf of the underprivileged and the people of the ghetto about their experience. He interpreted what a negligible effect the Civil Rights Acts had on their everyday lives, that their children still went to substandard schools, their housing was also substandard, that the fathers could not get jobs, that parents had to divorce to get welfare, that the conditions in the ghetto were not better but even worse than they had been in 1960. (Kennedy and Guthman and Allen 1993: 363)

As the 1968 presidential election approached, the domestic issues that I have described above as well as the escalation of the Vietnam War continued to result in riots and large scale protests which tore the country apart. Some historians even compare this time to the era of the Civil War. Masses of people were turning against authorities violently marching through the streets in anger and despair. C. Richard Allan and Edwin O. Guthman in their book RFK-Collected Speeches (1993) very appropriately characterised the year 1968 and the situation of that time when they called it “the decade’s true discordant climax” with grim and guarded public mood, the year, when the nation “was splitting along more than merely racial lines.” (Kennedy and Guthman and Allen 1993: 331) It was becoming evident to every reasonable human being that the country needed radical changes.

Perhaps there was no political representative more concerned and worried about the situation in the United States than Robert F. Kennedy. On the one hand he was aware of the enormous work that needed to be done in order to unite the people of the country, to stop the growing polarization and to ensure decent living conditions for all citizens, but on the other hand he also knew the drawbacks in challenging an incumbent president of his own party. Therefore his initial plan was not to seek the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidential election before 1972, when President Johnson’s second term in the White House would end. At that time Robert Kennedy was convinced that Lyndon B. Johnson would remain in his office after the elections in 1968. However, he had serious misgivings about the future of the country, since both potential scenarios – “four more years of Johnson or four years of Nixon” – would be in his own words “a catastrophe for the United States.” (Schlesinger 1985: 900) He was facing a serious dilemma of whether to run for the presidency or not. He could not expect much support from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, who regarded the challenging of an incumbent president as an immoral act. Robert Kennedy had no doubts the President would take advantage of his control over events, if he was opposed by anybody during the campaign. He was no less certain that many of his antagonists would accuse him of a personal vendetta, since his dislike of Johnson had been an open secret since President Kennedy named him as his vice-presidential choice. The main reason that held Robert Kennedy back from running was expressed by him in the company of his family and friends when at one point he said: “I think if I run I will go a long way toward proving everything that everybody who doesn’t like me has said about me…that I’m just a selfish, ambitious, little SOB that can’t wait to get his hands on the White House.” (Schlesinger 1985: 902) By the end of January 1968 Robert F. Kennedy was determined not to run for the presidency despite all the support and urging from his wife and his closest friends. At the National Press Club he told his assistants: “[…] I would not oppose Lyndon Johnson under any conceivable circumstances.” His press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, persuaded him to substitute ‘conceivable’ with ‘foreseeable’ before making his statement official. (Schlesinger 1985: 903) The course of the events that followed proved that the replacement of the terms had been appropriate. In February 1968 two catalytic events made Robert Kennedy reconsider his former standpoint. Those were the Vietcong’s surprise Tet offensive5 (see p. 35) that disproved all the optimistic pronouncements of the Johnson administration about the progress of the war and the Kerner Comission report6 (see p. 35) on 1967 urban riots and the divisions within the country, which was totally disregarded by the White House. (Kennedy and Guthman and Allen 1993: 319) The governance had evidently failed to handle two of the weightiest problems of the country that Robert Kennedy was deeply concerned about. His strong feelings about all the things that needed to be done and his unique empathy toward the poor, the underprivileged and the victims of the Vietnam War finally compelled him to enter the race. By the beginning of March 1968 he had made the decision to run for the presidency of the United States of America. The results of the New Hampshire primary held on 12th March, where fellow Democrat Eugene McCarthy polled 42.2 percent to Johnson’s 49.4 percent, convinced Robert Kennedy that the incumbent President was not undefeatable. (Kennedy and Guthman and Allen 1993: 319)

On 16th March 1968 Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States of America. In his announcement he stressed he was not running to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. The main points of his campaign program were: ending the Vietnam War, ending the polarization in the country, fighting poverty and improving the living conditions for the underprivileged. He himself admitted that he had made a lot of enemies in “business, labour, the newspapers, even among most of the politicians” during his career. When he was asked who was for him, he replied: “The young, the minorities, the Negroes and the Puerto Ricans.” (Schlesinger 1985: 901) The progress of the campaign proved his assumptions when he became extremely popular with the above listed communities. He predominantly aimed his campaign at young people, because he saw the potential in the youth to make the radical changes that were necessary in order to build a better future.

Shortly after Robert Kennedy’s announcement, President Johnson withdrew from the contest. After Johnson’s resignation, Hubert Humphrey, the Vice President announced his candidacy, but decided to stand aside from the competition in the primaries. The following state primaries showed that Kennedy and McCarthy were running an almost even race. Kennedy won in four, while McCarthy won in six states. However in four of the states where they campaigned against each other, Robert Kennedy won three primaries (Nebraska, Indiana and California). His popularity and ability to win the nomination and ultimately the election were growing after the two crucial primaries in Indiana and Nebraska, but unfortunately his life and successful campaign were cut short, when just a couple of minutes after giving his California primary victory speech he was assassinated.

The nomination of the Democratic Party was given to Hubert Humphrey. The Republican nominee was Richard Nixon and Governor George Wallace of Alabama was the nominee of an independent third party.

The results of the election showed Nixon’s 43.4 percents to Humphrey’s 42.7. Richard Nixon became the 37th President of the United Sates.

One can only speculate how differently history would have been written if Robert Kennedy had been elected president of the United States.


1. Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Proposed by President Kennedy, signed by President Johnson on July 2nd 1964. The Act outlawed “discrimination in voting, employment, public education and public accommodations and facilities.” (Schlesinger 1985: 696)

2. Wesley Barthelmes (1922-1976) – Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s press secretary from 1965 to 1966. (http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/RFKOH-WB-02.aspx)

3. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) “is a federal law enforcement agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination. The EEOC investigates discrimination complaints based on an individual’s race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, genetic information and retaliation for reporting, participating in and/or opposing a discriminatory practice.” – Initiated by President John F. Kennedy in 1961; established on July 2nd 1965 under the administration of President Johnson.


4. Civil Rights Act of 1965 – “Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1965 to ensure the voting rights of African Americans. Though the Constitution’s 15th Amendment (passed 1870) had guaranteed the right to vote regardless of ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’, African Americans in the South faced efforts to disenfranchise them, including poll taxes and literacy tests, as late as the 1960s, when the civil rights movement focused national attention on infringements of their voting rights; Congress responded with the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited Southern states from using literacy tests to determine eligibility to vote. Later laws prohibited literacy tests in all states and made poll taxes illegal in state and local elections.” (http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Civil+Rights+Act+of+1965)

5. Tet offensive – in February 1968 “as the Vietnamese Tet holiday began, the Vietcong launched a coordinated assault against American and South Vietnamese positions throughout the country. Saigon experienced fierce hand-to-hand fighting, and the American embassy was in enemy hands for several hours. In the first week of the intensified action, nearly six hundred United States soldiers died.” (Kennedy and Guthman and Allen 1993: 306)

6. Kerner Comission report – “Lyndon Johnson’s response to the urban riots of 1967 had been to appoint a Commission on Civil Disorders, with Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois as chairman. At the end of February 1968 the Kerner Commission submitted a powerful report. It portrayed a nation ‘moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate but unequal’ and proposed strong and specific action to reverse the deepening racial division.” (Schlesinger 1985: 908)

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