For those of us alive at the time, many can remember where we were on that fateful day. I was in class. The teacher was momentarily summoned out, and when she returned, she was visibly shaken. I can still recall her five words. “The President has been shot.” And then she wept. For the next few days, a kind of quiet darkness seemed to descend on the land. Camelot was over.
I remember it like yesterday, but on November 22, it will be sixty years ago. Sixty years! Yet, I still think about it. I’ve always had a certain fascination with the life and leadership of John Kennedy. When I taught leadership at Western, I used the movie Thirteen Days as a case study. After all, the Cuban missile crisis was a moment when everything was on the line. One misstep at the highest levels of power, and there would have been a nuclear holocaust. Much of humanity would have been incinerated.
I’ve been reliving some of those days recently, devoting part of my summer reading to Garry Wills’ book, The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. It’s both absorbing and troubling. While much has changed since the 60s, much is still the same. Only the characters have changed.
My early images of JFK included a stunning inauguration speech, the awesome vision to send a man to the moon, the face-to-face confrontation with the Soviet Union in October of 62, and Kennedy’s speech in West Berlin when he declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” To us young teenagers, Kennedy had near-heroic status. His picture graced the wall in homes, particularly of my Catholic friends.
But Will’s book shatters some of my early images of what I assumed to be the ideal statesman.
The reality is that the memory of Kennedy serves less as a model and more a warning to anyone who aspires to lead. Behind the makeup and glamor was an unashamed assertion of privilege and power, a life driven by impulse and folly. His father passed on aristocratic pretensions that trained his sons to be licentious.
Such privilege imprisoned one in a world of unreality, where bad behavior did not have consequences. Like certain elites today, Kennedy could coast along “on the cushion of money, deference, intimidation, and sycophants.” With no real moral compass, Kennedy’s many trysts were nothing more than emotionless events, having little to do with affection and everything to do with domination and scorekeeping. There was a running theme: “As soon as we can make them ours, we are no longer theirs.”
Like so many political leaders, Kennedy used religion as a means to gain votes. And like today, many of the religious were naïve and misguided minions. Kennedy’s Catholicism was little more than a façade for, as Wills notes, he did not care a wit for theology and personal piety. God, it would seem, with little more than an afterthought. Has anything changed?
It was all about the Kennedys, whose family code was, “Kennedys don’t lose.” Performance, not ideology, mattered. His egocentric life was less about substance and more about style. The Kennedy compound was described as a superheated mutual admiration society, creating a sort of magnetic field that energized those who were allowed to get in. Like so many political leaders, Kennedy was a shrewd manipulator of those both within and without. Journalists, rather than expose the truth, served as his unofficial spokesmen Consciously or unconsciously, they helped him rearrange reality. As Wills notes, “He used the medium—it did not use him.” I will let you connect the dots.
Charm and charisma allowed Kennedy to get away with things other leaders could not. He skirted procedural entanglements. Decisions of importance were made outside of the context of meetings. His cabinet was rarely consulted, and Congress and the State Department were often ignored. Authority would flow from one person. Kennedy would be that single nerve center.
Reading Wills has not only given me more historical clarity; it also serves to reinforce a growing disillusionment I have with many institutions of Influence. Power in the wrong hands not only corrupts—it debilitates.
I wonder what Kennedy could have been (and other political leaders could be), had he cared about theology and aimed for piety. Imagine if he had chosen a course of wisdom rather than folly. Envisage what his presidency might have looked like had he—
-entered the quiet of each morning on his knees, putting the voice of God above the daily briefings and op-ed pieces.
-determined to be guided by divine wisdom—
-a wisdom that gives a leader a penetrating sense of reality and realpolitik
-a capacity to get in step with God’s rhythms and ways—recognize there is an intrinsic connection between acts and consequences
-a competence to deal with power—ever suspicious of it rather than falling in love with it
-a discernment to see the folly of ever going it alone
-a strength to exercise moral restraint and keep one’s passions in check
-a humility to recognize that apart from God we can do nothing. None of us are indispensable.
It’s tragic that behind the impressive Oval Office are so many unimpressive men, whose love affair with power and position leads to such corrupt behaviors. Imagine what the values in the White House—and the broader culture—would have been if Kennedy was a faithful husband, a man who treated all women with honor and dignity and purity—and insisted upon this with his staff. The sexual revolution of the sixties would have faced powerful headwinds rather than a wind behind its back.
Think how different the decision-making would have been if Kennedy had been more reflective and less impulsive—less image and more ideas. Visualize what it would have looked like if he made it his mission to listen and collaborate, beginning with God. There wouldn’t have been a Bay of Pigs and maybe there would not have been a missile crisis. Perhaps there would not have even been an assassination. What there would have been, for sure, is a model that leaders today would hope to emulate. But such an example remains hard to find, and given our present structures, one wonders if they can even gain traction. Not only do we need them. We need voters who can see past the fictional Camelots.