The fiftieth anniversary of President John Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, Texas, is an opportunity to reflect on what it means to govern, or to be a leader, or to try to effect policy changes, in the modern world. The image of JFK (above) has often obscured more than it has revealed, for his personality seemed so dazzling to so many at the time (and since) that any historical insights about how he actually governed seem to have been blotted out.
Start with this: he was confident in his own abilities. Rich, tall, handsome and magnetic, he was difficult to know - but self-assured and self-reliant enough to ignore what the 'experts' told him. Many of his military chiefs advised an immediate military strike at the beginning of the near-fatal Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Kennedy ignored them, allowing his Soviet adversaries to climb down the ladder he offered them - the secret removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Continue with this: he looked like he knew what he was doing. Through all the affairs, all the constant, compulsive womanising, all the pain from his back, all the chronic illnesses and all the pills, he stood up, smiled, walked and talked like you should follow him. And many did. He understood the power of the image. But it was more than that. He understood (like the present incumbent) that the power of words has not passed away in the era of the big state and the big missile. Indeed, it has become ever more important to give and shape meaning in an ever-more complex world. His extraordinary inaugural address, which has gone down in twentieth century history as the very acme of what a speech actually is, is only one example.
End with this: he understood that you can't get rooted in one political community or one outlook. That can be an intellectual prison - especially for a chief executive, who has to take all arguments and disagreements unto himself for resolution. He talked tough on communism - while trying to negotiate the superpowers away from the brink. He defended the value of the dollar (appointing a Republican to be his Secretary of the Treasury) while trying to break out of the relative economic stagnation of the 1950s. He vacillated and hesitated on civil rights, before finally beginning to move towards the only viable solution - desegregation.
Catholic realist that he was, one of his purest insights was that attempting to erode darkness by degrees, and working every day towards apparently impossible goals, was and is as important as actually arriving at any destination. As he put it at his American University address on the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty:
While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both. No treaty, however much it may be to the advantage of all, however tightly it may be worded, can provide absolute security against the risks of deception and evasion. But it can... offer far more security and far fewer risks than an unabated, uncontrolled, unpredictable arms race. The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough - more than enough - of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on - not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.
There is little more to say than this: remember the strategy of peace. Remember President John F. Kennedy today.