PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

JFK would have turned 100 today—listen to the first recording of his voice

Before he became one of the greatest presidential orators in US history, John F. Kennedy was hard at work, living by the maxim that practice makes perfect.

That’s borne out in one of the earliest known recordings of his voice, restored and released earlier this month by archivists at Harvard University for a new exhibit examining the former president’s ties to the university.

John F. Kennedy, in his junior year at Harvard University, is shown at Harvard's Winthrop House in Cambridge, Ma., Jan. 24, 1939.
Just a regular student. (AP Photo)

Kennedy, who would have turned 100 today, is one of the most oft-quoted presidents, known for his inspiring turn of phrase and distinctive Bostonian accent. But in 1937 he was just another 20-year-old sophomore at Harvard practicing his speech-making abilities for a public speaking course.

In the one-minute, 28-second recording, Kennedy talks about the controversial appointment that year of Hugo Black, a one-time Klu Klux Klan member, to the Supreme Court by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The clip is believed to have been part of a longer address, according to archivist Megan Sniffin-Marinoff. While the speech is littered with a few ‘uhs,’ the snippet exemplifies the confident speaking style Kennedy became known for later in his career, particularly while he was president from 1961 to 1963.

The class’s professor, Frederick Clifton Packard Jr., recorded dozens of his students practicing. The recording of Kennedy was discovered when Packard Jr.’s materials were donated to Harvard a few years ago. Prior to this, the earliest known recording of Kennedy was from a 1940 interview, according to Sniffin-Marinoff.

While Kennedy picked a more political topic than his fellow students, his professor was only moderately impressed with his performance, Sniffin-Marinoff told NPR. “He got the sort of, average grade, that people got in the class,” she said. “Kennedy was kind of in the middle, like everybody else.”

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