JFK’s Jelly Donut: The Gaffe That Never Happened

“The only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously.” —John F. Kennedy

In a Nutshell

It’s one of the greatest gaffes in modern statehood: when John F. Kennedy made his famous 1963 speech in Berlin, he accidentally referred to himself as a jelly donut. Only problem is, it never happened.

The Whole Bushel

When JFK uttered the immortal words “Ich bin ein Berliner,” the assembled Germans tried their best to stifle their laughter. Unwittingly, one of the most respected world leaders of all time had capped his speech by claiming he was a jelly donut. In 1988, the New York Times ran a mocking piece looking back on this phenomenal gaffe and it entered into public consciousness. Why had no one covered this story before? Well, there wasn’t a story to cover.

The legend arose because “Berliner” is used in Germany to define a certain donut brand. However, the word has other uses, such as designating someone who comes from (or “belongs to”) Berlin. Since Berlin is, you know, the capital, these other uses tend to eclipse the whole donut thing. If that sounds suspect, consider this: if you heard someone say “I am a Cuban,” would you assume they were identifying with the island nation, or would you laugh because they’d just claimed to be a type of cigar?

The fact is, no one laughed at the speech. Jelly donuts were the last thing from anybody’s mind. Not only were Kennedy’s speech writers from Berlin themselves, but the word “Berliner” only describes a jelly donut in certain areas of the south of Germany, not in Berlin itself. JFK delivered a grammatically correct speech to an enraptured audience—and everyone pilloried him for it (years after his death). Sometimes, it seems, you just can’t win.

Show Me The Proof

Did JFK Say He Was A Jelly Doughnut?
John F Kennedy: How ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ gave a city hope
The Hole Truth