October 20, 2013


John F. Kennedy's Final Days Reveal A Man Who Craved Excitement (Larry Sabato, 10/16/13, Forbes)

Friend and foe alike agree that John Kennedy seized every moment, embraced every challenge, and lived life to its absolute fullest. This restless ambition sometimes produced great blessings for the nation. In September 1963 the Senate approved his Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty; never again would the Soviet Union or the United States detonate nuclear devices above ground. According to Ted Sorensen, "No other single accomplishment in the White House ever gave him greater satisfaction." The treaty helped preserve the environment and also reduced tensions between the two superpowers, while paving the way for future Cold War agreements.

Moreover, JFK convinced the country that, however huge the obstacles, it could land a man on the moon. Twenty-four hours before he died, Kennedy spoke at the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio, where he encouraged his fellow citizens to keep their eyes on the heavens:

We have a long way to go. Many weeks and months and years of long, tedious work lie ahead. There will be setbacks and frustrations and disappointments. There will be, as there always are, pressures in this country to do less in this area as in so many others, and temptations to do something else that is perhaps easier. But this research here must go on. This space effort must go on. The conquest of space must and will go ahead. That much we know. That much we can say with confidence and conviction.

Other, small achievements toward the conclusion of the Kennedy presidency are often overlooked but deserve mention. After standing up to Soviet aggression in Cuba, Kennedy offered his enemy an olive branch when the threat diminished. In October 1963 he authorized the sale of American wheat to the Soviets in order to help them cope with a poor harvest. The same month, while Congress debated his civil rights bill, the President's Commission on the Status of Women issued its final report. In response, JFK created the Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women and the Citizens' Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Both committees "provided ongoing leadership" on gender issues which, according to some Kennedy advocates, helped usher in the modern women's rights movement. Kennedy's New Frontier agenda also included the Equal Pay Act, signed by JFK in June 1963, which claimed to eliminate pay inequities based on gender. In practice, it had little effect in most economic sectors until strengthened by court decisions in the 1970s and further congressional action in subsequent administrations. Otherwise, Kennedy produced few advances for women in politics or government. His cabinet, for example, did not include a single woman, and he was certainly no feminist in his professional or private life. 

Mr. Sabato's free  course on the book's thesis starts Monday on Coursera and to get ready I've not only been reading his book but two that give an overview of the pathologies that shaped not just the man but his presidency: The Kennedy Imprisonment by Garry Wills and A Question of Character by Thomas C. Reeves.

Unfortunately, as you can see from above, Mr. Sabato seems to hold roughly the same view of the Kennedy presidency that the original Camelot crew did.  That "great blessings for the nation" bit is deeply silly, as demonstrated by the "achievements" that follow: the test ban treaty; a rocket-driven space program; wheat sales; and an ineffective first step on women's rights.  Really?  That's the positive Kennedy legacy?

Nevermind whether this list is worth much, can it possibly compensate for his bungling in the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam or for his relative inaction on Civil Rights? 

As to the discussion of the assassination in the book, after Gerald Posner's Case Closed Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of J. F. K., there just isn't much left to say and to treat all the conspiracy theories as if they need answers is like arguing with David Ickes Babylonian Brotherhood theory.

But the big problem with Mr. Sabato's text is that while playing down JFK's character and playing up his presidency, there is a conspicuous failure to consider how the two were tied together.  Mr. Wills develops his argument around Max Weber's description of charisma and charismatic leadership.  He shows, pretty dispositively, that JFK fit the description with all that implies for his leadership style, not least the tendency to attack existing bureaucracy, institutions and processes and to center everything in the leader, whom subordinates then submit to almost unquestioningly.  The archetypal instance of this is the way JFK used a portion of the CIA  to launch the Bay of Pigs, ignoring the rest of the agency and the military.  To the extent the latter two were even solicited for opinions they were skeptical if not outright opposed, but they could be ignored because legitimacy lay within the person of JFK, who'd decided to go ahead, and certitude that going outside the bureaucracy would yield results more efficiently.

It's shocking then to hear Mr. Sabato say in an interview:

A lot of historians debate whether Kennedy would have gotten us involved in Vietnam to the degree that Johnson did. What conclusions do you make about it now?

I have a long section about why I think Kennedy would not have ever come close to sending a half-million troops to Vietnam, as LBJ did. Beyond the Democratic Party itself, Kennedy's real base was "intellectual America" in the universities and the media. Johnson was the opposite. He was a graduate of a small state teacher's college in Texas, not Harvard. He hated the intellectuals. The fact they didn't like his Vietnam policy made it right in his mind. Johnson had surprisingly little foreign policy experience, but Kennedy had a great deal of it. Kennedy had a better grasp of what could be done successfully, and what could and should not be done. And he had the Bay of Pigs experience and was wary of the generals and their often hawkish advice. 

It was, of course, JFK himself who was hawkish, not the generals and the intellectuals he'd brought into his administration not only cheer-led as he made his mistakes but systematically covered up for them afterwards. Given a presidency that was about the charisma of the leader rather than about any set of ideas, the support of American intellectuals was necessarily cultish rather than a function of intellect.

All of this is important because when it comes time to consider JFK's legacy, what matters is not just how subsequent presidents borrowed his rhetoric to justify their own policies--as supply-siders have always done with regard to his tax cuts--but whether they understood how his character shaped his leadership-style and resulted in such an unsuccessful presidency, the reputation of which was rescued only by his martyrdom.  Since getting yourself killed seems a dubious way to earn a legacy, oughtn't we seek to understand what studying his actual legacy of governing can teach us?  

And the most important legacies would appear to be that the sort of charismatic leadership style he represented requires: subordinates (including those intellectuals) to be subservient to the man; a considerable level of disorganization, to distance that leader from contrary opinion; and a courtship of crisis, a milieu in which the elevation of a "leader" seems justified.  

What we ought to be seeking in a president--and what those seeking the office ought to model--is: a man with an agenda that will drive his presidency, as opposed to his own will to power driving it; a man who is comfortable surrounding himself with other leaders who are not subservient to him and can manage their own departments; and a man who is steady and takes events in stride rather than conflating them into apocalyptic crises.  Amusingly, the presidency that seems most directly the opposite of JFK's and to have absorbed the lessons of his legacy is George W. Bush's. W laid out a thorough agenda during his campaign and achieved much of it.  Even those items that he failed to achieve--SS privatization and immigration reform--were still focuses in his second term.  W surrounded himself with former Chiefs of Staff and governors--peers, not just staff. And he was such a steady presence even in times of actual crises that it infuriated people--as when he told folks to go about their normal lives after 9-11 or told FEMA it was doing a fine job in responding to Katrina or when he calmly met the financial crises by passing measures that prevented a second Depression.  One trembles to think how badly JFK--or any other merely charismatic leader--would have butchered those.


Shedding new light on John F. Kennedy's legacy: An interview with Larry Sabato Sabato's new book, The Kennedy Half Century, also uses new scientific methods to probe one of the most famous assassinations in American history (Joe Gandelman, October 15, 2013, The Week)

Posted by at October 20, 2013 7:59 AM

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