JFK and civic virtue

President John F. Kennedy, Middleburg, Virginia

Above is a picture of President John F. Kennedy walking his dog at his home near Middleburg, Virginia, in the early 1960s. The picture reminded me of a couple of things. First, that JFK epitomized style and grace. Watch some of his speeches, like his “Peace Speech” at American University, or read his pulitzer prize winning book, Profiles and Courage. Watch some of his press conferences. What you’ll see and read are a man of elevated intellect, artfulness, and civic virtue.

Secondly, while JFK had his personal vices and sins, as all flesh and blood men do, I believe it’s wiser to judge our public leaders more by their public persona than by their personal lives. I’m thinking of the importance of civic virtue. I think the more important question is: What example does a public leader publicly model in both speech and action? Are they careful with their words because they’re trying to not overstate or understate something? Words matter and they know it. In other words, are they trying to be honest and responsible in what they say? Do they show good will toward their political adversaries? The need to find common ground and compromise, to build political capital in a Democratic-Republic, is critical. Do they exhibit humility? Is their sense of pride and self-importance in check? Is the public leader just in action and see themselves always under the law? As the Roman lawyer Ulpian wrote, “Justice is a steady and enduring will to render to everyone his right.” Do they demonstrate wisdom? Do they recognize the limits of what they know and yet be able to discern the inner quality and relationship of things and make a good judgement? Are they courageous? Kennedy, already wounded himself, risked his life in WWII to save other men. For a public leader courage may be shown in taking a stand that’s contrary to his own party’s position (a “profile in courage”) or public opinion because the leader believes (and can argue intelligently) why his position serves the larger interests of his community or nation. Does the leader exhibit self-control? Are they governed by their fears, desires, and passions, and show it openly (let it slip out) or are they a man or woman who tries to govern themselves?

As a President and public leader Kennedy demonstrated all of these civic virtues. Many Presidents have embodied these civic virtues. Another good Presidential example would be President Ronald Reagan. He too was a man who demonstrated many of the civic virtues I discussed above. Civic virtue is the life blood of our Republic because it’s about the common good. A good public leader (or citizen) feels the weight of his or her office (his or her citizenship), the judgment of history, and the obligation to bring order, unity, purpose, and inspiration to the nation that he or she leads (is a citizen of) for the short period of time they hold office (or live). The hope of freedom and democracy is that our democratically elected leaders (and each of us as citizens) will recognize that the office they hold (our citizenship) is much bigger than any one person or any one generation.  

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.”

“the cause…we never faltered in defending”

Here, without contemplating consequences, before High Heaven, and in the face of the world, I swear eternal fidelity, to the just cause, as I deem it, of the land of my life, my liberty and my love—And who, that thinks with me, will not fearlessly adopt the oath that I take. Let none falter, who thinks he is right, and we may succeed. But, if after all, we shall fail, be it so—We still shall have the proud consolation of saying to our conscience, and to the departed shade of our country’s freedom, that the cause approved of our judgement, and adored of our hearts, in disaster, in chains, in torture, in death, we never faltered in defending.

— Abraham Lincoln

Amen.

#ImpeachmentVote

DFW on Leadership

Years ago I came across these words about leadership while reading David Foster Wallace’s (DFW) piece on John McCain’s 2000 Presidential campaign bid. They’re part of a superb essay DFW wrote for Rolling Stone called The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub.

Along with some other quotes by various writers, I’ve had DFW’s thoughts on leadership displayed in my office for years now. I don’t recall DFW writing about leadership anywhere else in his work, at least not directly, but as a literary artist he had that natural gift for description. I think this is one of the better, more accurate assessments of how many of us think of real leadership.

For those who’d prefer to hear a reading of this short piece, I’ve included a Soundcloud audio by Debbie Millman.

It is just about impossible to talk about the really important stuff in politics without using terms that have become such awful clichés they make your eyes glaze over and are hard to even hear. One such term is “leader,” which all the big candidates use all the time — as in e.g. “providing leadership,” “a proven leader,” “a new leader for a new century,” etc. — and have reduced to such a platitude that it’s hard to try to think about what “leader” really means and whether indeed what today’s Young Voters want is a leader. The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.