During these times of intense political acrimony, it’s refreshing to recall American history for hope and inspiration. Thus let’s pause today to reflect on some of the lasting leadership lessons of President John F. Kennedy (JFK), more than half a century after his untimely death.
The date was Nov. 22, 1963. The place was Dallas, Texas. JFK was shot in the head by a sniper as his open motorcade slowly proceeded through the downtown area amid onlookers who lined the streets.
Shortly thereafter, CBS News interrupted regularly scheduled TV programming to break the news that the president had been shot. The iconic broadcaster Walter Cronkite reported on the assassination, trying to maintain his composure as word of JFK’s death was announced. Then the nation collectively wept.
JFK remains the youngest American President ever elected (at age 43), and the youngest to die in office (at age 46). The Washington Post reported the following on JFK’s 100th birthday (May 29, 2017):
Kennedy was president for just 1,036 days. But in a Gallup poll, 74 percent of Americans ranked his presidency as either ‘outstanding’ or ‘above average,’ the highest of any president since World War II.
That’s because JFK brought out the best in all Americans at a time when it was desperately needed. This is something sorely missing from too many of today’s elected officials on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. (from the White House to the U.S. Capitol).
All generations can learn valuable lessons from JFK’s presidential leadership five decades later. Following are five examples:
1) Effectively communicating a bold vision to inspire the nation.
2) Fostering innovative thinking and leveraging new technology.
3) Taking political risks for the greater good of the country.
4) Adhering to a moral compass despite public opinion.
5) Advancing equal opportunities for women and minorities.
Two public policy challenges which forged JFK’s legacy were civil rights and space exploration. His bold actions altered the course of American history for the betterment of society. He led the nation to thrive in space and moved the moral compass on civil rights.
Civil Rights Struggle
JFK was president during turbulent times. The non-violent civil rights movement led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) was growing across the South and impacting the conscience of the country.
The national mood was tense. Police used unnecessary violence to stop peaceful demonstrations. This included beating civil rights marchers bloody with batons, unleashing K-9 attack dogs, and spraying down demonstrators with powerful water cannons.
It was a time of upheaval and uncertainty. America faced a crossroads in the fight for equal opportunity.
JFK played a pivotal role in persuading white citizens about the importance of civil rights for black Americans, who faced daily discrimination in mostly all aspects of society.
JFK framed the civil rights debate as a struggle for the basic rights of all citizens under the U.S. Constitution. JFK used his formidable communication skills to drive home this message in the new era of televised mass media — similar to how President Franklin D. Roosevelt galvanized the nation by radio with his famous Fireside Chats.
Among his civil rights achievements, JFK fought for and signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and set the stage for the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Title VII of which provided for equal employment opportunities for African Americans and women.
To demonstrate his leadership and command of communication in the TV age, JFK delivered a consequential nationally televised address on June 11, 1963, during the height of the civil rights struggle. The young president told a weary nation:
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and it is as clear as the American Constitution. This nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.
To quote from the speech of another great president, Abraham Lincoln, it could be said that JFK brought out the “better angels” that were dormant in the hearts and minds of many white Americans.
And while JFK wouldn’t live long enough to see Congress pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, it would not have been possible without his persistent leadership as president.
In addition to his admirable civil rights record, JFK had a huge impact on space exploration in general and landing the first astronauts on the moon in particular. He restored public confidence in a waning U.S. space program which had been drastically underfunded and overlooked. Moreover, JFK inspired the nation to pride itself on taking big risks and believing in big dreams.
He uplifted America by supporting NASA’s powerful Saturn V rocket program, in addition to laying the infrastructure and architecture of the celebrated Apollo space program.
JFK’s cogent communication skills catalyzed the public and the federal bureaucracy. He persuaded Congress to super-size NASA’s fledgling budget to unprecedented levels which made the moon mission possible. He led America to ultimately defeat the former Soviet Union in space through the Apollo 11 moon landing, despite the long odds and grave dangers.
JFK understood the significance of America leading the world in space as the lone global superpower. This took place as the Soviets were initially winning the space race by launching the first cosmonaut into low-Earth orbit, leaving America behind.
JFK issued a clarion call for the USA to “become the world’s leading space-faring nation” during his acclaimed Moon Speech at Rice University in September 1962:
We choose to go the moon this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. This country was conquered by those who moved forward — and so will space.
JFK’s courageous leadership to help effectuate the moon landing yielded countless scientific and technological discoveries (spinoff innovations) which benefited America and the world.
Unfortunately, JFK would not live to see his fearless vision bear fruit when the Eagle touched down on the lunar surface in the summer of 1969. Nevertheless, he paved the way for the USA to become a global role model in space and science for decades to come.
Will we ever see a president like JFK again?
Those in the public and private sectors can learn from JFK’s legacy. He positively changed the fabric of society by inspiring patriotism, morality, dignity and human decency. He brought out the best in ordinary Americans nationwide.
President Kennedy transcended the times by leading America to achieve improbable dreams. He restored pride at home and exerted strength abroad. He transformed the American spirit and conscience during a tumultuous period in our history. That’s why he remains one of the most popular and beloved presidents more than a half-century after his death.
Thus let’s pause to reflect on JFK’s inspirational achievements for America. Today’s lawmakers, from the White House to the state house, can take a cue from JFK’s presidency to heal the nation from political division and social strife.
The Eternal Flame burns brightly in JFK’s honor at Arlington National Cemetery as a perpetual testament to his transformational leadership. His legacy should inspire us and provide hope for a better future at a time when it’s desperately needed.
What do YOU think about JFK’s lasting impact on the USA and the world?