A Few Words From JFK on Presidential Leadership

25 Apr

John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail, 1960

“Vote for Kennedy!”: Flashback to 1960, the last time a sitting (or in this case, standing) U.S. Senator won the presidency in a general election.

A FEW WORDS FROM JFK ON PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP

This election year, we all must have a heart-to-heart with ourselves and ask, “what qualities do I want in a president? What truly constitutes leadership?”

We’d like to draw your attention to a speech President John F. Kennedy gave in 1962 which is rarely noted or quoted. Sadly, this address seems to have been somewhat lost to history, but reading his words again should strike a deep resonant chord in all of us today.

This speech hits home now when we look at our plunging economy, the national debt, the death of American industry, the downfall of labor unions, our failing education system, corporate profit-taking, the war, escalating tensions around the globe, the pillage of our natural environment, the election, and perhaps most importantly – the powers properly granted to the president under the Constitution of the United States to fix these problems. What is within his or her power, and what is not?

After eight years of George W. Bush, it’s a hot question in 2008.

WHEN IS AGGRESSIVE USE OF PRESIDENTIAL POWER A GOOD THING?

Let’s look at just one historical example.

President Kennedy made these remarks during a speech to the United Auto Workers Union in Atlantic City in May, 1962. Addressing the issue of how much influence the President should have over the nation’s economy (or perhaps put more bluntly, whether he should bow and do the bidding of his corporate puppetmasters), Kennedy vigorously defended his recent actions which had forced the steel industry to eliminate a price increase.

“I speak,” he said, “as President of the United States with a single voice to both management and labor . . . I believe it is the business of the President of the United States to concern himself with the general welfare and the public interest . . . I believe that what is good for the United States—for the people as a whole—is going to be good for every American company and for every American union.”

Unjustified wage and price demands, said the President, are equally “contrary to the national interest.” His Administration “has not undertaken and will not undertake” to fix prices or wages or to intervene in every little old labor dispute. Instead, it depends on labor and management to reach settlements within “guidelines” suggested by the Administration.

This aggressive policy had been the subject of “a good deal of discussion, acrimony, and controversy on wages and prices and profits,” Kennedy acknowleged, but he added this justification: 

“Now I know there are some people who say that this isn’t the business of the President of the United States, who believe that the President of the United States should be an honorary chairman of a great fraternal organization and confine himself to ceremonial functions. But that is not what the Constitution says. And I did not run for President of the United States to fulfill that Office in that way.”

OK, stop. Go back and read that paragraph again, because it’s terribly important. What did he just say?

He just stated that he did not run for the Presidency for the honor of being corporate America’s puppet. Or the Military’s puppet. Or anybody’s puppet,for that matter. He said that he was well aware of the immense powers granted to the president under the U.S. Constitution, and that he fully intended to make use of those powers when necessary.

Do you realize how dangerous these words are when spoken by a president?

For those who still seek an answer to the neverending question – “why was President Kennedy killed?” – it could be argued that he had to be “replaced” becasue he interpreted the Constitution literally. JFK thought that “goddamn piece of paper” (as future presidents would refer to this now-arcane historical document) actually meant what it said.

Kennedy continued:

“Harry Truman once said there are 14 or 15 million Americans who have the resources to have representatives in Washington to protect their interests, and that the interests of the great mass of other people, the hundred and fifty or sixty million, is the responsibility of the President of the United States. And I propose to fulfill it!

And there are those who say, “Stay out of this area–it would be all right if we are in a national emergency or in a war.”

What do they think we are in? And what period of history do they believe this country has reached? What do they believe is occurring all over the world?

Merely because vast armies do not march against each other, does anyone think that our danger is less immediate, or the struggle is less ferocious?

As long as the United States is the great and chief guardian of freedom, all the way in a great half circle from the Brandenburg Gate to Viet-Nam, as long as we fulfill our functions at a time of climax in the struggle for freedom, then I believe it is the business of the President of the United States to concern himself with the general welfare and the public interest. And if the people feel that it is not, then they should secure the services of a new President of the United States.”

 – JFK to the United Auto Workers Union, May 8, 1962

THE PRESIDENT IS NOT AN “HONORARY CHAIRMAN OF A GREAT FRATERNAL ORGANIZATION”

My point exactly. After eight long years of a president who could care less about the general welfare and the public interest, it is now up to the people to secure the services of a new President of the United States. And we’re going to do it this November.

But who among the current crop of candidates posesses the kind of leadership qualities JFK not only talked about, but exhibited during each of the thousand days?

Do you see that kind of bold vision in Hillary Clinton? Does Barack Obama have the fight in him to stand up when big industry starts pushing? Would John McCain lift a finger to challenge the military industrial complex? Who’s got what it takes?

What do YOU want in a president, America? What defines true presidential leadership?

To my mind at least, true presidential leadership requires the kind of courage exhibited by JFK in the example above.

CLASH OF THE TITANS

At the time, Kennedy was roasted for his aggressive use of presidential power in the showdown with Big Steel  – by the business community, by academia, the press, members of Congress, and even his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower.

In the May 18, 1962 issue of Time magazine, Ike strongly criticized the President for “the strenuous efforts of the Administration to increase greatly the power of the executive branch of the Government. It has long been my judgment that the real threat to liberty in this Republic will be primarily found in a steady erosion of self-reliant citizenship and in excessive power concentration.”

To back up his charge that Kennedy is asking for too many powers, Ike cited Kennedy’s requests for authority to modify income taxes when he decides it is necessary, to finance emergency public works by diversion of funds, to “regiment all agriculture,” to “take over a whole host of state and local responsibilities, notably including the proposal for a Department of Urban Affairs,” and “to dilute the independence of the Federal Reserve Board by presidential appointment of its chairman.” Added Ike: “The objectives under lying many such proposals are not in themselves controversial. I do not agree, however, that in every instance more presidential power is needed to achieve them.”

Ironically, while it was President Eisenhower who had cautioned against undue influence by the Military-Industrial-Complex two years before, the truth of the matter is that during his presidency Eisenhower sought out the Titans, respected their advice, and treated them as they thought they deserved to be treated — in other words, as representatives of the most influential body in the nation.

By contrast, Kennedy kept his distance. Prior to his election he had had little contact with industrial circles, and once he was in the White House he saw even less of them. Businessmen were generally excluded from the Kennedys’ private parties. Not only did he “snub” them (in the words of Ralph Cordiner, President of General Electric), he also attacked them. Kennedy did not consult the business world before making his appointments. The men he placed at the head of the federal regulatory agencies were entirely new. Since the end of the war, the businessmen had become accustomed to considering these bodies as adjuncts of their own professional associations. They were more indignant than surprised. They attempted to intervene, but in vain.

If the Titans thought that John F. Kennedy was going to be their puppet, they had another thing coming.

“Honorary chairman of a great fraternal organization” who should “confine himself to ceremonial functions?” Not this president. 

Kennedy had just let let them know: This president had a mind of his own – and if you don’t like it, perhaps you boys should go get yourselves another president

HAIL TO THE CHIEF

Even nearly 45 years after his passing, I still look to President Kennedy’s words and deeds for strength and inspiration – I think many of us do – and every election year since then, we have searched for a political candidate who embodies that same spirit. Someone who understands and achieves that perfect balance between exercising presidential power and the public interest, while avoiding the temptation to become drunk on their own power and take the country into a dictatorship.

It’s always a difficult balancing act for any president, but the example of JFK’s administration showed us all that a president can use his power forcefully and effectively when the need arises – but that such use is only acceptable and reasonable if this flexing of executive muscle is done to benefit the national interest. (And, more often than not, to force corporations or industries into doing the right thing – what they should have done in the first place – for their fellow citizens.)

“The American people will find it hard, as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans.”

– President John F. Kennedy, April 11, 1962

In my own personal dictionary, you look up “presidential leadership,” and there’s Jack Kennedy’s picture.

President John F. Kennedy, fall 1962

When the people said, “we want action, not talk“, Kennedy delivered.

THE PRESIDENT HAS THE POWER 

So the next time you suffer sticker shock at the gas pump, and you wonder aloud, “who can fix this?” – remember that the president has the power. All a president needs is a plan and most importantly, the courage to stand up to The Men Who Rule The World because he knows the Constitution and the people will back him up.

Next time you feel obliged to curse the oil companies for sticking it to millions of people while they enjoy record profits, remember who our president is now.

Next time you bitch about the modern day industrial robber barons who are stealing us blind and wonder why Congress does nothing to stop it, remember President Kennedy.

Remember that he went to bat for all Americans and fought the Titans just to shave what amounted to a rather paltry price increase in steel down to a reasonable amount. Remember that he won that battle, too.

Remember that if our current president, or any future president, should have the political will and the courage, they can also fight the Titans and curb these out-of-control oil industry profits, bring an energy revolution to the table, get us off of foreign oil and out of debt to dictators quicker than you can say, “all in a day’s work!”

Remember that when you choose a presidential candidate this year.

`Nuff said!

 

Copyright RFKin2008.com.

 

For further reading on JFK’s showdown with U.S. Steel, we highly recommend:

“John F. Kennedy and the Titans” by Laura Knight-Jadczyk at http://laura-knight-jadczyk.blogspot.com/2006/11/john-f-kennedy-and-titans.html

“A Diversity of Dilemmas”, Time Magazine, May 18, 1962 article at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,896150,00.html

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7 Responses to “A Few Words From JFK on Presidential Leadership”

  1. Victor Bird May 11, 2008 at 11:18 am #

    I could not have said it any better. Truly, JFK was the last Commander-in-Chief. He would bring in the executives of the oil companies and tell them they were entitled to a reasonable profit but not one that amounted to robbery of the American people. Enough said.

  2. network camera December 2, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    Undoubtedly, one of the best article l have come across on this precious topic. I quite agree with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your coming updates.

  3. network camera December 3, 2010 at 12:02 am #

    Excellent post, l quite agree with your conclusion. However lam having problem subscribing to your rss.

  4. Peter Rock Favazza September 19, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    Very well presented and I agree 100%. JFK was our last hero and he is sorely missed. I do not think in our lifetime we will see the likes of him again. He was a man of destiny and ahead of his time. A man for all ages. Not one president has stood up to the plate and delivered on his promises like JFK did. He did not care for his personal safety as much as he cared for the average American and the American dream.

    • Editor November 19, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

      Yes. President Kennedy, his elder brother Joe and younger brother Bobby all made the ultimate sacrifices for their country. Let us always remember that.

  5. bonjoy01 March 13, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    This excellent article on the last true American President, and hero, we’ve had, JFK, was written four years ago. Obama, who I did not vote for, was not up to the task, either. I have not voted for a party candidate since 1988 (Dukakis – more cos’ I didn’t trust Bush) and I will not do so until I see SOMEONE step forward with some guts.

    Now, in 2012 it’ll be Obama or the cast of clowns from the Republican party; one of whom I call “Sanotarium” actually had the gall to say that JFK’s speech on the religious issue while running for the presidency made him, “…want to throw up.” What an absolute idiot!
    God help this country….

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