Richard Nisley

The Rich Man's Son
History - World Released - Aug 25, 2013

A 5000-to-one shot. That’s how Joseph Kennedy assessed his son’s chances of winning a seat in the House of Representatives after watching him give a speech. Newly discharged from the Navy, Jack Kennedy was shy, nervous, and not connecting with the working-class voters who comprised Massachusetts’ Eleventh District. With all his millions and political connections, Ambassador Kennedy could not help young Jack overcome his shyness or become an effective public speaker.

An old Irish pol who was handling East Boston for the Ambassador’s son recalls that at first, “Jack was very retiring. You had to lead him by the hand. You had to push him into the poolrooms, taverns, clubs. . . . He didn’t like it at first. He wanted no part of it.” It was, another aid recalls, “Very hard for him to go up to someone he’d never met and say, “I’m Jack Kennedy.”

Young Kennedy’s early speeches all seemed to be, a biographer has written, “both mediocre and humorless . . . read from a prepared text with all the insecurity of a novice,” in a voice “tensely high-pitched,” and with “a quality of grave seriousness that masked his discomfiture. . . . He seemed to be just a trifle embarrassed on stage.”

There were, however, moments when Kennedy showed signs of promise. When he stumbled over a word, “a quick, self-deprecating grin” would break over his face--and, a member of one audience remembers, it “could light up a room.” And there was, however much he stumbled over his words, “a winning sincerity” in his speeches.

Occasionally something special would happen. At one forum in which all the candidates spoke, the master of ceremonies, no friend of Kennedy and eager to emphasize that he was a rich man’s son, made of point of introducing each of the others as “a young fellow who came up the hard way.” Then it was Kennedy’s turn. “I seem to be the only person here tonight who didn’t come up the hard way,” he said, and suddenly there was the grin, and the audience roared with laughter, and that issue was dead. Another time, he walked into a hall late, while the leading opponent, Mike Neville, a former mayor and a popular legislator, was speaking. “Here comes the opposition,” Neville sneered. “Maybe he’s going to talk to you about money and how to manage a bank.” Without a pause, Kennedy said, “I’m not going to talk about banking, Mike, I’m going to talk about you.” The rest of the night Neville was on the defensive. The tough Boston pols hired with Joseph Kennedy’s millions realized young Jack not only had a quick wit but could think on his feet -- and think fast.*

When the ballots were cast on election day, Jack Kennedy came out on top. Still, he was far from the polished, confident speaker we would come to know as our 35th President. Most of his talks were delivered much too fast, with his smiles so fleeting and mechanical that their brightness hardly registered with audiences.

While Kennedy did nothing to distinguish himself as a Congressman or later as a Senator, he continued to improve as a public speaker. After just missing being nominated as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956, he began making speeches all over the country. In effect, Kennedy was running for the 1960 Presidential election. Using his father’s private plane, he pursued a speaking tour that lasted for four years, right up until election day.

During these four years, Kennedy’s public speaking underwent a remarkable transformation. He grew increasingly more confident, flashing his winning smile at the right moment, his right hand jabbing the air to emphasize a point. And there was something different about the way he was holding his head: sometimes it would tilt a little to the right, and his chin would come up, and out: strong, self-assured. His voice, with its distinctive New England accent, had always sounded earnest; now it was becoming more emphatic, and occasionally had a ring to it. And if, after a speech or during a press conference, he got hostile questions, which were mostly about his Catholicism, the chin would cock up a little more, the hand gesture would be more emphatic, and he would answer with a mixture of sincerity and self-deprecatory humor that won over audiences to his side.

One of the reasons Lyndon Johnson lost the Democratic nomination to Kennedy and Richard Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election, was they failed to come to grips with Kennedy’s transformation as a public speaker. Both Johnson and Nixon were campaigning against Kennedy’s underwhelming record in the House and Senate while voters only saw Kennedy’s polish and self-assurance as a public speaker and therefore had little trouble imagining him as president.

Kennedy’s transformation is attributable to something recently identified as “The 10,000-Hour Rule.” To achieve mastery of something, 10,000 hours of time is required. The rule is cited in “Outliers” the best-selling book by Malcolm Chadwell. Chadwell gives The Beatles’ musical talents and Bill Gates’ computer savvy as examples. From 1960 to 1963, The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. It honed their talent. “So by the time they returned to England from Hamburg they sounded like no one else,” writes Chadwell. “It was the making of them.” Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13 years, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.

Kennedy achieved mastery campaigning 12-to-16 hours a day running for Congress three times, for the Senate twice, and those four years campaigning for president.

*this paragraph is from "The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power" by Robert A. Caro
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