Why JFK’s 1960 acceptance speech is depressing in 2012

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo! News

If you want a depressing example of how political language has changed—and not for the better—check out this excerpt from John Kennedy’s 1960 acceptance speech.

Kennedy was making a key argument, that Richard Nixon would not win the love of the votes of many of “the millions of Americans who voted for President Eisenhower.” And he reached for examples of other “Richards” who were unworthy successors.

“Just as historians tell us that Richard the First was not fit to fill the shoes of the bold Henry the Second,” he said, “and that Richard Cromwell was not fit to wear the mantle of his uncle, they might add in future years that Richard Nixon did not measure up to the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower.”

Now imagine a group of modern political operatives looking at a speech that invoked 12th and 17th century British history.

“Are you nuts?” they’d scream at the speechwriter. “Who are you writing for, the history department at Yale? Nobody’s going to understand that. You want to invoke a Richard they’ll get--try Richard Simmons.”

It tells us something important—and unwelcome—that in 1960, the campaign of a major party nominee for president would be comfortable evoking historical examples, believing either that the voters would understand or that they’d be flattered.

In 2012, the very idea would be regarded as suicidal.