JFK’s Four Questions for Measuring Public Leadership

President Elect John F. Kennedy delivering his Address to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, January 9, 1961

During President Reagan’s 1988 farewell address, he invoked that now famous John Winthrop phrase about “a shining city upon a hill,” to symbolize how Reagan had always envisioned America’s purpose in the free world. It was an inspiring and beautifully delivered speech.

But Reagan’s vision seemed mostly concerned with the cultural and commercial aspects of that shining city, and not its leadership. National cultures and economies may evolve into a shining examples, but that rarely happens without good leadership, especially in government.

Though he had not taken office yet, it was actually President Elect John F. Kennedy (JFK) who first gave notoriety to Winthrop’s phrase “A shining city upon a hill” during JFK’s January 9, 1961, Address to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But Kennedy, who would soon assume the highest office in the land on January 20th, used the phrase to focus attention on those entrusted with public leadership.

But I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. 

“We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill–the eyes of all people are upon us.” 

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.

For JFK public service was a noble profession, where citizens were entrusted to serve the public’s interests and uphold his or her oath to the Constitution and the founding ideals of this country. This was especially true of public servants elected to high office. For JFK those entrusted with power would ultimately be judged on how they used (or miss used) power—surely by God—but certainly by the great tribunal of History. JFK said History will judge a public leader by the answers to four questions—which I feel are still the best set of questions for judging any public leader, both then and most certainly now.

For of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us—recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state—our success or failure, in whatever office we may hold, will be measured by the answers to four questions: 

First, were we truly men of courage—with the courage to stand up to one’s enemies—and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one’s associates—the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed? 

Secondly, were we truly men of judgment—with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past—of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others—with enough wisdom to know that we did not know, and enough candor to admit it? 

Third, were we truly men of integrity—men who never ran out on either the principles in which they believed or the people who believed in them—men who believed in us—men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust? 

Finally, were we truly men of dedication—with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest. 

We know, as JFK did, that his 4 questions are an ideal. We know this because we’re human beings who regularly fall short, sin, and often fail to meet the high moral demands of the moment. It’s what we do. But JFK also knew we had to demand that our leaders strive for these high ideals….because that was what built and, more importantly, sustained that shining city upon a hill. The point, then and now, is that public leaders must have a social conscience and a sense of duty to others—and that we (and History) should judge our leaders by how honestly they have striven to meet the heavy demands of moral leadership.

“Let us stand together…”

I’ve been reading Kennedy by Ted Sorensen as a sort of therapy during these very turbulent times. JFK was a pragmatic idealist. He was intelligent, witty, inspirational, and a highly competent man. Reading about his life (and times) you realize he was very much a man for all seasons and a skilled leader. So naturally during times like these, when all these qualities are missing from the current President, some of us, nostalgically, like to read about great men and women of the past who, while never perfect, met the challenges of moment with a noble sense of purpose, unity, and high ideals.

Yesterday JFK would have turned 103 years old had he been alive. I was reading a few articles about JFK online and came across something I’d never seen before. Here are his final words on a note card that JFK had planned to read at a Austin, Texas, event before his life was tragically cut short on that fateful November 22, 1963 day.

Such words are meant to bring people together to meet difficult challenges and overcome obstacles. Unity of purpose and a sense that “we’re all in this together” has always been the message of great leaders in democratic societies.

A house divided cannot stand as Lincoln said. And currently we are a house that is being purposely divided. Our times call longingly for new leadership; a new way forward out of this morass of greed, selfishness, and little mindedness. Let us hope this November the nation will “stand together with renewed confidence in our cause.”

“by the better angels of our nature.”

President Abraham Lincoln delivering his first Inaugural Address

In your hand, my fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend” it…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

— U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861.

155th Anniversary of the End of the American Civil War

Surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia

155 years ago today Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to United States General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, ending the American Civil War.

Lee had held the trenches at Petersburg for 10 months before he had abandoned his untenable position and marched his army west in an attempt to shake the federals and hopefully get reenforced by another confederate army marching north through North Carolina.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was, by this time, hollowed out by desertions and in no shape to take on the much larger federal army pursing them. Knowing this, Lee did the honorable thing and surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox. The contest had been decided.

With Lee’s surrender the Civil War was effectively over and the Confederacy was no more.

Sunrise at a snow covered battlefield

Chancellorsville, Virginia (Photo by Theresa Rasmussen, December 12, 2019)