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John F. Kennedy: A leader for our time

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President John F. Kennedy was the kind of leader our world needs today (Image via Flickr)

John F. Kennedy's legacy as one of the great political leaders in history is something lacking in the world of today's politics, writes Andrew Vincent.

OVER AND ABOVE his status as a popular culture icon and figure of tragedy, a careful listening of some of John F. Kennedy’s lesser-known speeches and press conferences reveals a leader for our times.

Today, with a bumbling political novice in the White House, amid rising global instability, a powerful China rivalling Western norms and populations in the United States and across the West riven with divisions, one could reasonably ask “where are you, Jack Kennedy, when we really need you?”

Despite his youth, Kennedy was no neophyte when he came to the White House. He had spent years thinking, writing and speaking about what was necessary. By the time of his death, Kennedy was clearly articulating a unifying message, of citizens acting on their duty to uphold the public interest.  

Two generations later and his vision still carries a terrible poignancy: an unfulfilled quality, not so much because of the manner of his passing – terrible though it was – but because his vision is still so relevant.

Instead of the erudite, thoughtful and unifying Kennedy, America and the world has Donald Trump.

Both Kennedy and Trump won the White House leveraging their mastery of the TV medium. Both won the presidency over more experienced opponents (Richard Nixon and Hillary Clinton, respectively) in super-tight elections.

But there the similarities end.

Trump is a salesman, conjuring messages for the consumption of his supporters, whom he sees as viewers in a battle for ratings.

Kennedy, by contrast, was popular but not a populist. He called for civic action from the American people, introducing them to the concept in his electrifying inaugural in January 1961: “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”

At this time in history, who can claim that America has secured success, or even what success looks like anymore?

Australia, too, is struggling with mounting distrust of the major political parties and our major public institutions to be able to solve our big problems.

In an obscure, little-covered speech, delivered on 25 September 1963 at the University of North Dakota, less than two months before his assassination, Kennedy could be speaking to us today.

One could be forgiven for wishing that he was.

Unity

JFK at the University of North Dakota, September 1963 (Image supplied)

Here he is, almost pleading with the good burghers of North Dakota to create common cause with the rest of the country. The statement is deeply unlike today’s U.S. leaders, whether it is Trump and his call to “go back to where you came from” to many migrants, or Hillary Clinton targeting the so-called “deplorable” in many parts of the United States.

In his speech given to the University of North Dakota, Kennedy said:

“This country is not far away, it’s closer than it has ever been before. When you can fly across it in five hours, when… we are one people, living in 50 states and living in hundreds of communities.”

Public interest

Kennedy’s objective in unifying the nation was to galvanise it to recognise and support the “public interest”.

The public interest was Kennedy’s constant companion while in office, whether he was targeting self-centred college kids in North Dakota in 1963, or clobbering U.S. steelmakers in 1962 who had raised the price of steel with no regard to inflation while holding workers’ wages down.

Kennedy harangued them during a press conference in April 1962, telling the White House press corps:  

“The simultaneous and identical actions of United States Steel and other leading steel corporations, increasing steel prices by some $6 a ton, constitute a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest.”

Privilege

Kennedy was, of course, a product of privilege. But he saw it as coming with a duty to give back to the nation.

Speaking to the students at the University of North Dakota, Kennedy said:

“We do not merely to seek to graduate lawyers or farmers or doctors, who may lead their communities in income. What we seek to develop, in all of our colleges and universities, are educated men and women who can bear the burden of responsible citizenship.”

Listening to the recording, you can hear Kennedy pronounce “income” with the same derisive tone he referred in 1962 to the steel industry’s pursuit of “private power and profit”.

Kennedy was a realist and knew that America needed its elite, their education, skills and leadership to serve the greater good.

While he wasn’t above using the bully pulpit when necessary, he didn’t disqualify those with privilege — he enlisted them, telling the undergraduates in North Dakota:

“So in that great effort, I urge you to participate. Nothing will give you more satisfaction. No need is greater.”

“See what happens”

JFK was a war veteran. His small patrol boat was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer in 1943, scattering him and his men into the Pacific. He was a student of the Great Depression — partly the result of a lack of action by central bankers and the U.S. Government.

He wasn’t interested in happenstance, telling his North Dakota audience in 1963:

“There’s an old saying, that things don’t happen, they are made to happen.”

Trump’s administration appears lackadaisical in comparison, even chaotic.

Not a week goes by without Trump telling reporters he’ll see what happens on some key global issue.

Facts

Trump’s attitude isn’t unrelated to his relationship to facts. That is, he makes things up to suit his agenda, making it necessary, at times, to deny facts.

What would Kennedy make of this?

In his perpetual referencing of the public interest, facts were central to its service.

In his North Dakota speech, he said:

“What I urge upon those of you who are students here, is to make determinations based on life as it is, on facts as they are, not merely here in this community, not merely in North Dakota, not merely in the United States, but in this varied and dangerous world of ours.”

Kennedy was talking about the basic soundness of a country’s political system, predicting that an unsound system would see a nation “torn apart by friction and faction”.

At the stretch of 55 years, his words were prophetic.

Kennedy, a visionary leader of great generosity of spirit (as outlined in the brilliant JFK and the Unspeakable, by James W. Douglass), called on others to share his vision of citizens acting freely to strengthen the public interest.

Trump is at a similar stage of his presidency and the contrast could not be greater.

Trump is struggling to articulate a vision beyond “greatness” or “success” and seems to weigh his messages as either merciless attacks or as promises of some future gratification.

“You’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning,” Trump has said.

For Australian leaders, struggling to articulate what prosperity and freedom are for, they could do worse than listen to the University of North Dakota speech.

Kennedy’s was a call for urgent action — a message just as necessary today, although for different reasons than in 1963.

Kennedy finished his North Dakota speech with a favourite anecdote illustrating the need for urgent action, more poignant for us today knowing he would be dead within two months.

Marshal Lyautey, who was the great French Marshal in North Africa, was once talking to his gardener and he suggested that he plant a tree. The gardener said, ‘why plant it; it won’t flower for 100 years?’ Marshal Lyautey said, ‘in that case, plant it this afternoon’. I think that’s good advice for all of us.”

Kennedy was adept at winning over crowds with his masterful speeches (Image supplied)

Andrew Vincent has worked in the media, politics and public affairs for two decades, in Sydney, Canberra and regional Australia. 

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