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Essay

Governing Rhetoric

Did JFK borrow his most famous words from Kahlil Gibran?

This January, Ted Cruz suggested to a crowd of supporters in New Hampshire that if John F. Kennedy were running today, he would be a Republican. Attempting a Boston accent, Cruz drawled, “As JFK said, ‘Some men see things as they are and ask, Why? I see things that never were and ask, why not?’ These are the principles that work.” In fact, Cruz wasn’t quoting JFK at all. The line is most commonly attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, who, in turn, borrowed the phrase from George Bernard Shaw. Nevertheless, it’s telling that to give a campaign a rhetorical boost, candidates still turn to JFK.

John F. Kennedy’s reputation is indelibly stamped with the most famous line of his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” The phrase, which has inspired countless Americans and others around the globe, has a crisp, seemingly effortless ring to it. But the history behind the line itself might be more complicated than it appears.

In 1925, the Lebanese-born poet Kahlil Gibran, author of the enormously popular collection of prose poems The Prophet, wrote an open letter in Arabic to Lebanon’s parliament. Though critical reception of Gibran over the years has been mixed—in 1972, the New York Times called him a “candy metaphysician”––Gibran has remained a beloved literary icon, with his poetry remaining a perennial favorite to read at weddings. The English title of Gibran’s open letter has been translated as “The New Deal” or “The New Frontier.” Gibran lived most of his life in the United States, but he remained connected to Lebanese politics and wrote several essays and poems denouncing oppression and promoting peace. Written at the time of the Great Syrian Revolt, when Syria and Lebanon were attempting to gain independence from France, Gibran’s letter to the parliament included a phrase that, in its most popular English translation, sounds all too familiar: “Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country?”

The distinct similarity between Gibran’s “New Frontier” line and Kennedy’s “Ask not” has been noted before. This past January, on the anniversary of Gibran’s birth, the New York Times reminded readers of the connection, as did a 2011 Sydney Morning Herald article. In 2007, when a collection of Gibran’s manuscripts was donated to Princeton University, manuscript curator Don Skemer pointed out the JFK-Gibran link to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin.

At least one Gibran scholar thinks Kennedy had Gibran on the brain. “Kennedy was certainly quoting,” Robin Waterfield, the author of Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran, wrote in an email. “The coincidence is too great.”

But Ted Sorensen, the celebrated adviser who helped draft Kennedy’s inaugural address, vehemently denied any connection to Gibran. In his 2009 memoir Counselor, about his career with the Kennedy administration, Sorensen writes of hearing from Gibran supporters:

The Khalil Gibran Society telephoned and wrote me asking whether either Kennedy or I had read the piece, even though it had not been translated into English by January 20, 1961. Did either of us read Arabic or any of the Middle Eastern languages in which it had appeared? I was asked. No, we did not.

One Sorensen detail isn’t entirely accurate: the article had indeed been translated into English before 1961, but a close examination of the translation highlights the fact that correlation does not equal causation. In 1957, Anthony R. Ferris translated the letter, published in The Voice and the Master. Here’s how the relevant line appears: “Are you a politician who says to himself: ‘I will use my country for my own benefit’? If so, you are naught but a parasite living on the flesh of others. Or are you a devoted patriot, who whispers into the ear of his inner self: ‘I love to serve my country as a faithful servant.’ If so, you are an oasis in the desert, ready to quench the thirst of the wayfarer.” Similar to JFK, to be sure but not quite the same.

A translation closer to Kennedy’s version appeared in A Third Treasury of Kahlil Gibran, published in 1975. This might not be so much a story of Gibran’s influencing Kennedy as vice versa; recognizing the similarities in sentiment, the translator, consciously or not, might have massaged Gibran’s writing to bring it closer to Kennedy’s familiar structure. When I asked Waterfield, the Gibran scholar, about the translation differences, Waterfield admitted that Kennedy’s speech was perhaps less a direct echo than an “echo in sentiment.”

Sorensen’s memoir wryly points to many other possible sources for Kennedy’s line that critics have cited, from Robert Browning to Calvin Coolidge to a freshman fraternity pledge at the University of Texas. “The most credible theory,” wrote Sorensen, “stated that Kennedy, having attended high school at Choate Academy, class of 1935, may have heard Headmaster George St. John remind his students at chapel that what mattered most was selfless service, ‘not what Choate can do for you but what you can do for Choate.’” (However, Sorensen also notes that Choate archivists could not verify that St. John had actually delivered this phrase––even St. John’s son told Sorensen that he could not remember when his father had spoken the line.)

Rather than one stealing from the other, it is more likely that both Kennedy and Gibran borrowed from an age-old rhetorical gesture. Kennedy’s phrase is often cited as a textbook example of chiasmus, the rhetorical device in which two or more related clauses are inverted. In classical rhetoric, however, chiasmus does not exactly repeat the same words or phrases but rather inverts a sentence’s grammatical structure. Technically, the quotation is more properly an example of antimetabole, or the repetition of words in successive clauses but in transposed order: I know what I like, and I like what I know; Beauty is truth, truth beauty; If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

Antimetabole has pervaded rhetoric for centuries. The witches in Macbeth: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Samuel Johnson’s “Drury-lane Prologue Spoken by Mr. Garrick at the Opening of the Theatre in Drury-Lane,” 1747: “For we that live to please, must please to live.” Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, 1946: “Let us preach what we practice, let us practice what we preach.” Comedian Yakov Smirnoff, 1985: “In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, Party always finds you!”

A 2008 Slate article referred to antimetabole, or the “reverse raincoat” turn of phrase, as the “hottest rhetorical device” of that year’s presidential campaign. When he introduced Joe Biden as his running mate, Barack Obama said, “He has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn't changed him.” Antimetabole can be too powerful, as Mitt Romney learned the hard way: his notorious declaration “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom” landed him in political hot water, as pundits pointed out that antimetabole is a speechifying gimme: if you use antimetabole, whatever you say will likely stick, even if you don’t ultimately stick to what you say. During the 2008 primary season, Hillary Clinton pointed out, “In the end the true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it’s whether the president delivers on the speeches.” In Sarah Palin's exuberant January 2016 endorsement of Donald Trump's candidacy, as reporter Hunter Schwartz suggests, her enthusiastic, apparently off-the-cuff speech is laced throughout with chiasmus. Parallelism is so rhetorically pervasive in politics that it undergirds freestyling.

Perhaps it’s best to chalk up Kennedy not as a Gibran plagiarist or translator borrowing language from Kennedy but to see both as part of a long lineage of writers using a time-tested rhetorical trick. Sorensen himself claimed that he had no idea where the brainwave for the line had originated. “Having no satisfactory answer” to the line’s source, he wrote in Counselor, “I long ago started answering the oft-repeated question as to its authorship with the smiling retort ‘Ask not.’”

  • Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (forthcoming 2017, Rescue Press), winner of the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize, and the chapbook But What Will We Do, winner of the Seattle Review Chapbook Contest. She writes for the New Yorker online, and her work has also appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Atlantic online, and Lana Turner Journal, among other...

Essay

Governing Rhetoric

Did JFK borrow his most famous words from Kahlil Gibran?
  • Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (forthcoming 2017, Rescue Press), winner of the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize, and the chapbook But What Will We Do, winner of the Seattle Review Chapbook Contest. She writes for the New Yorker online, and her work has also appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Atlantic online, and Lana Turner Journal, among other...

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