John F. Kennedy remains a popular president. He was one of those rare presidents who became more popular during his time in office. In the last Gallup poll before his assassination, Kennedy’s approval rating stood at 70 percent!
Some pundits have dismissed Kennedy as “all profile and no courage.” But a closer look reveals that behind the charisma, smile and bold rhetoric, lay courage aplenty, plus vision and substance.
- Craft a compelling vision. By 1960, a new generation of “Baby Boomers” was coming of age. What was to be their challenge? In his Inaugural Address, Kennedy gave them one: “Now the trumpet summons us again-not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation-a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that effort?” He dared young Americans to take on the status quo and to push themselves to the limit.
- Face adversity with a smile. John F. Kennedy was born with an unstable back, which he aggravated further in sports and in the PT-109 incident. Also, he nearly died of scarlet fever as an infant, was mistakenly diagnosed with leukemia as a teenager, developed Addison’s Disease, which could be controlled only with painful cortisone treatments, suffered from allergies, bad eyesight, slight deafness in one ear, and much else besides. Born into a wealthy family, yet cursed with a sickly body, Kennedy could have given in to self-pity and sat on the sidelines. He refused, facing his maladies with a smile and joke. He was thus well-prepared to deal with the frustrations of political life.
- Don’t follow the crowd. John F. Kennedy set his own course in life, always wary of being seen as anybody’s “man.” As a young man, he spent much time in Europe watching his father make blunder after blunder as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, and young Kennedy resolved not to repeat them. He rejected his father’s crabbed isolationism in favor of a robust internationalism personified by Kennedy’s hero, Winston Churchill. He and his brother Bobby investigated corruption in U.S. labor unions, particularly the Teamsters. He also took on the American Legion, the House Democratic leadership, the Pentagon top brass.
- Educate yourself. A passion for self-education might be one of the most reliable markers of leadership: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan were mostly self-taught. Jack Kennedy became a reader during his childhood illnesses as he lay flat on his back in hospitals. History, biography, and historical fiction, such as Churchill’s History of the First World War and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, were among his favorites. Before becoming president, Kennedy traveled the globe, visiting places few Americans had ever been, such as Vietnam. The contrast he witnessed between pre-war and post-war Berlin demonstrated vividly the possible consequences of world war, especially if it became nuclear.
- Learn to communicate. Kennedy was a poor public speaker at the start of his career. He spoke too fast, failed to pause for audience reaction, tended to speak from the larynx rather than the diaphragm and so wore out his voice quickly. He spoke with a pronounced regional accent. He dealt with this by keeping his talks short, and leaving time for questions. But he worked hard to improve himself, hiring voice coaches and a speechwriter, Theodore C. Sorensen, who helped him craft memorable phrases and imagery. Kennedy was also one of the first politicians to receive media training. His live press conferences became a White House tradition. He cultivated reporters who wrote favorable stories about him and his family and declined to write about his affairs and illnesses. He used his communication skills to rally the nation to fight the Cold War, soothe its fears, inspire unity, and achieve its highest aspirations.
- Don’t let crises manage you. Perhaps the most important quality a leader can possess is the ability to manage a crisis without letting the crisis manage the leader. Kennedy projected a calm confidence that communicated to those around him and to the country. For example, during the Cuban missile crisis (October 1962), Kennedy remained calm and refused to retaliate. To prevent future miscommunications, Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to establish a “hotline” between the White House and Kremlin.
- Build a team and find your “Bobby.” No one gets to the top alone. To reach and hold a major leadership position, you need to build a team. Kennedy learned early how to get along with people from all walks of life. He could charm European aristocrats as well as bell hops and cab drivers with equal felicity. His intensity and purpose proved irresistible, and most people who worked for him remained devoted to him (no member of the Kennedy circle ever wrote even a remotely hostile memoir.) When Jack’s first Senate campaign manager proved incompetent, he turned to his brother Bobby, who impressed Jack with his organizational abilities. Bobby took charge, firing those who failed to perform and promoting those who showed drive and determination. He became indispensable to his brother, who defied the charges of nepotism to name him attorney general. Everyone at the top needs someone whose advice he can trust implicitly.
- Add a touch of showmanship. When Kennedy became president, the presidential aircraft was painted in an orange-white-and-black paint scheme with the phrase “Military Air Transport Command” stenciled on the side. For the New Frontier, this simply wouldn’t do. So Kennedy called in Raymond Loewy, a great industrial designer. Loewy came up with the pale blue and white paint scheme and the words “United States of America” stenciled on the fuselage. Kennedy also discovered the aircraft had a codename: Air Force One. That was too good a name to keep secret, and Kennedy began using it publicly.
- Learn from mistakes. When Cuban exiles invaded that country with U.S. support early in his administration in an effort to overthrow Fidel Castro, the effort collapsed ignominiously. Kennedy did not blame the previous administration, whose idea it was. Instead, he accepted full responsibility, saying, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Still, there were consequences. The director and deputy director of the CIA were both sacked. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were required to give their opinions to him in writing. Never again would Kennedy simply trust anyone’s word. Instead, he questioned his advisers to ensure all options were explored.
- Do what’s right. Courage is a leitmotif running through Kennedy’s life. He possessed enormous physical courage, playing rough sports like football and starring on the Harvard swimming team despite his fragile frame. Before the United States entered World War II in 1941, Jack enlisted in the navy. After the PT-109 was sunk by a Japanese destroyer, he joked with his men to keep their spirits up. His best-known book is called Profiles in Courage, which chronicles the stories of United States senators who risked their careers by supporting unpopular causes.
When African-Americans were agitating for their civil rights, Kennedy at first hesitated to embrace their cause, fearing it would damage him politically. But on June 11, 1963, he did so wholeheartedly. Kennedy was the first president to call for equal rights for all Americans. And his words could not be taken back once he had spoken them. In addition to his physical courage, he had inner courage as well.