November 23, 2013


JFK's Legacy: The Charisma Fallacy (Max Boot, 11.22.2013, Commentary)

In the end Dallek, a good historian, falls back on this: "Kennedy's greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends."

There is little doubt that there is something here-Kennedy did inspire a generation and many felt called to public service because of his example. But the nation also paid a high cost for the youthful charisma that Kennedy brought to the presidency because its flip side was lack of know-how and experience.

Even Kennedy admirers have to admit his many early stumbles, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion (why on earth approve a hare-brained CIA scheme to restage D-Day but without air cover?), the Berlin crisis, and the Vienna summit with Khrushchev where the Soviet leader came away convinced that the new president was weak-a conclusion that led directly to the worst days of the Cold War. To be sure, Kennedy deserved high marks for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis when he resisted the militaristic advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff that, if adopted, could easily have triggered World War III. (Was this the last time that the top generals were more hawkish than the top civilian policymakers?)

Undoubtedly this was a sign of his growing maturity in office, and yet this chronicle of a president growing into his job bumps up against some inconvenient facts. Namely that in the last months of his life Kennedy was guilty of one of his worst blunders in office-approving the plot to overthrow South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem when it was obvious that there was no better alternative among all the South Vietnamese generals hungry for his post. Kennedy immediately expressed contrition for Diem's death but he did not live to see how the removal of South Vietnam's leader embroiled that country in years of instability and fostered a sense of American ownership of the conflict.

It is little wonder that in succeeding decades, as the luster of Camelot has faded, historians have been elevating Eisenhower and demoting Kennedy among the ranks of presidents-the former getting newfound respect for his steadiness, experience and deft handling of the international scene, all qualities that Kennedy lacked at least at first.

Yet we never seem to learn-we keep choosing charisma over experience. 

The UR himself made a revealing statement reflecting the weakness of the charismatic : 

[M]y greatest weakness, I think, is when it comes to -- I'll give you a very good example. I ask my staff never to hand me paper until two seconds before I need it, because I will lose it. (Laughter.) You know. The -- you know. And my desk in my office doesn't look good. I've got to have somebody around me who is keeping track of that stuff. And that's not trivial. I need to have good people in place who can make sure that systems run.

Of course, one distinguishing characteristic of the charismatic is that they surround themselvbes with lackeys, not competent people.

Posted by at November 23, 2013 11:19 AM

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