Lessons from JFK

I’m watching JFK: A Presidency Revealed, and there are a number of lessons to be gleaned.

  1. JFK always believed he didn’t have long to live–his medical problems were so extensive that he knew his body would fail long before most men–so he accelerated everything he did. When most politicians held back their ambitions until they were older, Kennedy had no such luxury.

    It reminds me of the risk imperative, the idea that to succeed on a phenomenal scale you must risk the highest stakes.

  2. After the Bay of Pigs Kennedy immediately took responsibility for the debacle. His brother Edward recalled a phone call to his father afterward:

    And my father told him, “That was probably one of the best speeches you have ever given. Americans understand making mistakes.”

    In contrast, the problem that worries most even-headed critics of Bush is his apparent inability to admit when he is wrong. Most of said critics would restore support of the President if it seemed that he recognized his failures and was determined to change them. Yet Bush continues to repeat faulty conclusions even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I’m not sure why that is–I believe that Bush is sincere in his moral and religious convictions, and in principle does desire to do the “right thing”. However, he is seemingly victim to the fallacy of confusing “character” with “personality”. Bush has become so concerned with “being right” and putting the right personality forward (and politically rightly so, as many used that as a reason to vote against stiff Al Gore in 2000) that these continued denials have eroded his character.

    To be fair, even Kennedy failed the character test several times. Says one civil rights leader:

    Kennedy’s legacy is artificial memory…in the real, he simply wasn’t as committed to civil rights as his supporters…say he was.

    Indeed, he had to be pushed repeatedly into introducing a civil rights bill by Martin Luther King and others.

  3. You can accomplish very serious and principled goals in several different, often simultaneous ways. During the construction of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. occupied West Berlin and the Soviet Union were in East Berlin. Events proceeded to a conflict at “Checkpoint Charlie”, where neither side was willing show weakness nor trust assurances from the other. While the president negotiated with top Soviet officials, his brother Bobby pursued a backchannel with a Soviet spy he know in Washington. It was through this backchannel that both sides were convinced to lay down arms. Of course this reminded me of the present-day movie The Sum of All Fears, where the backchannel connection with the Soviets prevents nuclear war.

  4. Kennedy was an excellent example of an autotelic personality, making action decisions based on the challenge they posed and the thrill of the chase.

    We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

    From his Rice University speech, September 12, 1962

    One historian notes:

    He literally wanted to be President of the United States because he believed that was the most exciting profession in the world.