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.