Lessons in Leadership: JFK

At last, I have finished another book.

A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House is a book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr, who served as Special Adviser for the President during the administration from 1960 until Kennedy’s death in 1963. I found it on the bottom shelf of the ‘political books’ bookshelf in my father’s study, a battered copy that he remarked was probably picked up at a primary school fete at some point and read once. I started on it in the hope of getting to know a President whose reputation seems enormous in progressive circles, especially considering the tragic circumstances of his death, but one who I felt I knew very little about. On behalf of Time magazine the cover declares “Of all the Kennedy books, this is the best”. Having read it, but no other Kennedy books, I hope it isn’t, as it left much to be desired in learning about the man himself, but it still had much to offer. If it can fairly be described as one of the most comprehensive, it would only be of the President’s foreign policy, and the reflections on his personality and other aspects of his political passions are scant and seem to reflect the interests of the author in painting a mostly flattering picture of the late President, rather than an accurate one.

Not a biographical take on Kennedy, the book presents a somewhat dry but genuinely informative account of his political endeavours. Its focus is especially in foreign policy, where the author’s skills were mostly engaged in the period. The best insights Schlesinger treats us to nearly all involve relations with the Soviet Union and Chairman Khrushchev. An especially notable moment I recall is when Kennedy is asking Khrushchev at a luncheon if he has met a certain prominent American businessman. Khrushchev’s face goes sour, and he says “Yes. I’ve met him.” When Kennedy, by inference, asks if he didn’t like the man, Khrushchev responds “I used to kill men like him in the revolution.”

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A political cartoon depicting the struggles of the Cold War for Kennedy and Khrushchev

Schlesinger’s recollections of Kennedy’s relations with Khrushchev and the Russians give us access to moments like this regularly throughout the book, and the reader should certainly infer the author’s approval of Kennedy’s approach to the relationship. However, despite the flattering commentary, many of these were in fact the moments I often felt most frustrated with Kennedy. In particular, the President is repeatedly seems to harbour a preference to seem ‘non-partisan’, and forms a particular distaste for what he describes as ‘ideological’ approaches to problem solving. On page 279, Schlesinger begins to signal this preference, but presents it slightly differently, saying “(Kennedy) cared less about the clash of abstractions than about practical problems” and later it becomes clearer, saying that “Always (Kennedy) spoke for reason … eschewing the moralistic crusade”. On Page 664, he says that “Contrary to a widespread impression, Kennedy did not view himself as partisan … He saw himself as a man who generally saw reason on both sides of complex issues.”

For me, there are two problems with this memory of Kennedy. The first, is that I am an ideological person, and I do not believe leaders should feel allergic to ideology. Secondly, from what I learned about Kennedy, I don’t believe this self perception is accurate. Both of these problems with this theory of the ‘cool, non-partisan’ Kennedy rear their head again and again in the course of the administration as described by Schlesinger. For a start, as Schlesinger very tellingly wrote with Kennedy often seems to “see reason on both sides of complex issues”. Well unfortunately most complex issues don’t just have two ‘sides of the story’, and a problem I repeatedly detect in Kennedy’s decision making is the drawing of battle-lines. He reduces complex issues to a decision between two or at most three options.

He is repeatedly shown sending advisors away to “find out what State thinks”, or asking “so what does the CIA say?” and is in the next sentence lauded for his nuanced approach to complicated tasks. In a desire to ‘get all sides’ of a situation, he often created self fulfilling prophecies that formed two sides. The chief example of this is described late in the book when Schlesinger dedicates a few chapters to multilateralism in Europe. He reduces worldwide debate on the future of the common market to a question of “Europeanists” and “Anglo-Americanists”. He even goes as far to title the chapter “Kennedy vs. De Gaulle: Two Europes”.

As for the second problem, it was frustrating watching Kennedy repeatedly fail to misunderstand his more ideological opponents, both on the left and right. When Khrushchev made his “I used to kill men like him in the revolution” remark, Kennedy was not reportedly scandalised by any means but later reflected he could never truly understand the Russians. When the ambassador spoke to him about his dedication to “the workers of the world” Kennedy simply passed this off with “Why do they think their propaganda has a place in diplomacy?”. On the right, he could not grasp why steel producers would fix prices at the cost of their relationship with the administration. In both cases, I would implore him to recognise their ideologies. Those steel producers really believe they are worth more to America than he is. Those communists? Well Mr President, I would say, they really do believe in Communism.

Kennedy seemed to take what seemed a specifically moralistic pride in rejecting moralism. Repeatedly, Kennedy turns up his nose at those people who make decisions because they feel a moral or ethical responsibility to do so. Only when ‘moralistic’ (read: liberal) ideas are able to be ‘practically achieved’ (read: stripped of their value to the satisfaction of a Republican Congress), are they even considered worth their salt by the President.

It all seemed a long hark from the only quote of his I knew before reading the book, his famous adage that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis elect to preserve their neutrality”.

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The President at his desk

There were other moments too that led me to some reflection, always something I appreciate from a good book.

Reading about the democratic convention, I recalled an evening at Sydney Trades Hall in January 2016, when I attended a debate within NSW Young Labor (entirely for fun it must be noted), regarding the then-upcoming Democratic primary race. The question was simple, should NSW Young Labor endorse Bernie Sanders, the formerly Independent Senator from Vermont, running on his self proclaimed “democratic socialist” (a dubious self-definition at best). The room was split, and general tomfoolery, zingers, and questionable public speaking ability ensued, but I do remember one particular moment. A member of the Right stood up in support of Secretary Clinton, declaring that Senator Sanders “is not even a real Democrat! He just joined the party to become President!” A member of the Socialist Left took their right of reply, and memorably begged the question of the audience “Since when have we been the Democrats!? The Democrats are not us.” gesturing to the enormous trade union council banner on the wall behind him. I don’t remember the rest, I think he went on to rave about the board of directors at Walmart or emails, but that particular comment stuck with me.

In the book Kennedy talks about labour leaders as if they are simply one more stakeholder. In the ALP, we are those labour leaders. When we talk about “labour leaders” we talk about the people we drink with at the cricket, our friends and colleagues, about ourselves. Kennedy at times even talked about them like they were a thorn in his side, certainly not as if he was describing fellow travellers. This reflection on the differences between the American left and the ALP were interesting, and were something I may not have thought over again without the prompting of such a book. I appreciated this a lot, but this wasn’t my biggest takeaway.

What struck me most, and the true focus of the book, is Kennedy’s leadership of the world, rather than America. That too is a big difference between Australian and American leadership.

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President Kennedy at Yale to deliver a commencement speech in 1962

President Kennedy may not have believed he was ideological, and while this may have been true in some ways, it was not on the world stage. As President, like all others, Kennedy represented one vision for the world, and Khrushchev represented another. They competed in an arena of ideas for the supremacy of their visions, with drawn weapons making it all very tense. His ideology may not have been as simple as “democracy is good, communism is bad”, but he had a clear one. It was of a cosmopolitan world order, based on the self-determination of peoples and democratic government. One with free and fair elections for people of all nations, and security from the destruction of war, the end of apartheid, and reconciliation for victims of colonialism. Immense responsibility to furthering these principles falls on the shoulders of American leadership in a way we middle powers may never truly appreciate.

This book painted a picture of Kennedy the way just one person saw him, but that person describes a lucid decision maker, principled problem solver, and a man deeply interested in international progress: in terms of global leadership, certainly not out of his depth. By any interpretation of this recount, it’s clear the 35th President provided leadership the world desperately needed in a deeply troubling time. If you’re looking for a great recount of the management of a complex government, and of the importance of listening, learning from mistakes, and keeping options open as a leader, this book is a great choice. It reminds us how much is left to be desired of current American leadership.

I never intend to talk about the current President, and would rather not mention his name on this blog, but this the book did make me think of him and his administration: it does make me just a little bit afraid. This book reinforced to me the unique and indispensable role of positive American leadership in the world, and also a great survey of its seemingly endless problems. It certainly showed that in the world, Americans can do things that others simply can’t. It also argued, with Kennedy at the forefront of the debate, that they must.

As a final thought on that, I was most reminded of the current Presidential situation in this book when, on page 593, Schlesinger recounts a speech the President gave at a Yale commencement in 1962. Kennedy said

For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived, and dishonest–but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

Oh, how I wish that were still true.

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