Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

John F. Kennedy: the Leader as Learner

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This month the nation has observed the memory and legacy of John F. Kennedy as we remembered his untimely death. Kennedy the leader taught us many lessons in his short term as president. One of the primary lessons of his leadership was his willingness to grow and learn while in office.

Although Kennedy gained political experience in the Senate, the tests he faced during his presidency were something quite different. As the leader of the free world, the complexities of presidential statesmanship opened Kennedy’s eyes to the hard realities of post-cold war power politics. Chris Matthews, one of my favorite commentators and writers, has written a superlative work on the Kennedy legacy. “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero” speaks of the acumen and moral courage Kennedy showed as a political leader, at a volatile time in our nation’s history. The world could have easily hurled headlong into nuclear disaster had Kennedy not been willing to listen and learn, to contemplate and negotiate the courses of action that would proffer world peace while risking the ire of other leaders in the pantheon of American presidential politics. David Talbot’s “Brothers,” and the movie “Thirteen Days,” also provide vivid depictions of the political tensions permeating the Kennedy years in office.

One of the difficult lessons of Kennedy’s presidency was learning to broker the confidence of people in power, like the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Cuban missile crisis. Harder still for Kennedy was balancing his deliberative, cerebral leadership style and ruminations with the Joints Chiefs’ urgent objections against what they perceived as delayed military actions in response to threats posed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. These men, who had experienced the hard lessons of World War II and other military conflicts, knew all too well the high price of waging war and the consequences of not doing so.

Appeasement in the face of aggression was the strategy attributed to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the failure to stop Hitler at Munich – as well as to Kennedy’s father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, who was viewed as a proponent of that policy. So the seemingly sluggish pace of President Kennedy’s responses to his hand-picked advisor Dean Acheson and to the Joint Chief’s military recommendations prompted them to believe they were getting more of the same from the ambassador’s son.

These men felt that failing to act urgently could cost millions of American lives. But Kennedy knew that hasty action could also spell disastrous action. As a student of history, he knew it might be better to take his time in reaching a decision than to rush to a decision and possibly be dead wrong. Through his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, the president opened back channels of dialogue with Nikita Khrushchev. This fortitude was a difficult achievement in a political climate pressurized in a cauldron, like a near-nuclear pressure cooker. Cold war politics seemingly required immediate military action in order to save America and indeed the world from nuclear annihilation.

Kennedy had learned both statesmanship and gamesmanship during myriad domestic crises that had percolated around racial injustice and national movements for civil rights. As the son of a wealthy Boston businessman who had little or no real experience with black Americans, he focused on learning about the quandaries and quagmires of race politics in America. When Martin Luther King languished in a Southern jail, Kennedy telephoned Coretta Scott King in an act of compassion that – even if politically inspired – exemplified the power of empathy. This act might have alienated white voters and spelled electoral suicide, yet some historians believe that Kennedy’s show of concern for King may have helped inspire the deluge of black votes cast for him. These black votes, which won for him swing states, virtually decided the 1960 presidential election in his favor. Sometimes when the people know that politicians truly care about them, for more than just their vote, it can be enough to win the people’s allegiance – and therefore that vote.

Kennedy thus understood the importance of moral leadership on critical issues such as Civil Rights, and although he had limited experience in these matters, he was again willing to grow and learn and rise to the occasion to advocate the full rights of blacks and all other Americans.

Even in the personal realm, Kennedy’s father complained that his son was instituting policies that went against the father’s best financial interests. Not only did Kennedy show a willingness to learn the “ropes” of the presidential office, but also had the moral resolve to make critical decisions that put him at odds with powerful people, including his dad.

When I think of John F. Kennedy and his leadership, leadership that inspired the world, I am truly impressed with his openness to learning. I am amazed at his willingness to surround himself with thinkers and doers who complemented his shortcomings as a leader. Kennedy was an intellectual who had seen his share of personal pain and suffering with his own health challenges and with the death of both his brother and sister during World War II. He also experienced the agonies and horrors of war in the PT 109 Naval boating disaster that he survived. Personal pain and suffering can often broaden one’s perspective on the many lessons that life invariably teaches – and can encourage us to open ourselves to new frontiers of compassion, knowledge and true understanding.

His readiness to learn and grow, even if others challenged his own views of the world, may have been one of Kennedy’s greatest assets. His ability to think and re-think critical decisions. To painstakingly turn political assumptions on their head. To ask thoughtful questions while both embracing and challenging traditional assumptions and beliefs. These were the gifts of John Kennedy’s leadership. These were the hallmarks of a leader who knew the cost – and was willing to pay the price – of leading America and the world through diplomacy to a better and safer place.




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