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Peacemaking Rhetoric of JFK to be Examined at College of Wooster Faculty at Large Lecture

UPublish story by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Denise Bostdorff, professor of communication studies at The College of Wooster, will present “JFK at American University: The Rhetoric of the Possible and the Commencement of Peace” at the next Faculty at Large lecture on Thursday, Oct. 2, in Lean Lecture Room of Wishart Hall (303 E. University St.). The lecture, which is free and open to the public, begins at 11 a.m.


The presentation will summarize research conducted by Bostdorff and one of her former students, recent graduate Shawna Ferris, who examined the speech for her Senior Independent Study project. The two worked together on an essay that has been selected for presentation at the National Communication Association’s centennial conference in November.


In 1963, Kennedy’s primary foreign policy goal was détente with the USSR, specifically a limited test-ban treaty to curb the nuclear arms race, said Bostdorff. However, he also recognized that his earlier anti-communist rhetoric had left little room for negotiation and had reinforced Americans’ anti-communist sentiments. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, meanwhile, had not yet agreed to the terms the United States had offered, while most Western European allies were anxious that a US-USSR détente might not uphold their own security. In this context, Kennedy delivered a commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963, in which he offered a new vision of the world in which peace was possible.


According to Bostdorff and Ferris, Kennedy employed ceremonial rhetoric — with its appeals of praise and/or blame and its high style — to alter listeners’ perceptions of reality, ever so gradually, throughout his speech. They argue that the President also used “multivocal” language so his claims that peace could exist between Americans and Soviets might just as easily apply to the possibility of peace between black and white Americans. His commencement speech helped to pave the way for acceptance of a nuclear test ban treaty and for his nationwide address, just one day later, which asked for more specific policy remedies on civil rights.


Bostdorff has been a member of Wooster’s faculty since 1994. She specializes in political rhetoric, especially presidential communication about foreign policy. She is the author of nearly 30 scholarly essays and two books: The Presidency and the Rhetoric of Foreign Crisis, and Proclaiming the Truman Doctrine: The Cold War Call to Arms, which won the 2010 Bruce E. Gronbeck Political Communication Research Award. In addition, she has served on the editorial board or as a reviewer for more than 30 scholarly journals and book series. Bostdorff earned a B.S. in speech and communication education from Bowling Green State University. She then earned her M.A. from University of Illinois and her Ph.D. from Purdue University.


Additional information about Bostdorff’s lecture is available by phone (330-263-2576) or e-mail (

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