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.
During politically turbulent times like these our value systems are put to the test. Being human, naturally, we fail to live our values completely and honestly. We’re all hypocrites. A lot of us (but clearly not all) recognize this early in life as we mature and develop a greater and deeper sense of honest self-reflection. This leads the penitent soul to recognize how important, for example, humility is in everyday life. Humility, we realize, is a solid virtue. Humility is a fundamental value we believe in because it’s an honest and mature understanding of our naturally flawed condition.
So, if we truly value humility—or truth telling, integrity, fidelity, justice, mercy, faithfulness, etc, etc—then we value them as an integrate part of a meaningful and purposeful driven life. We also, naturally, want to see these values reflected in the behavior and character of others—especially our leaders. Such fundamental values make our social lives and our sense of community possible. The break down, or deep decay of these values over time, is an invitation to strife, to rabid partisanship, to tribalism, to social breakdown, and the fermenting of civil war.
So it becomes critically important to understand that none of these values or virtues have any meaning unless we try to live them and promote them socially. (Listening and empathy, I might add, are virtues.)
Character matters folks. That’s a fundamental law of humanity. Our mature minds and our longing souls know this if we but listen to them. We should live, as best we can, those fundamental values and expect our leaders will strive to do the same.
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.”
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.
So I’ve got my reading list ready for the next month or so…or longer for me probably. It’s a short list, but a good one I think. If you haven’t considered what you’re reading going forward for the next month or so maybe you’ll consider these. Two of the books arrived from Amazon today, and I pulled one from the shelf that’s sat for a long time unread.
First, there’s Ben Sasses’s new book, Them. For the most part I find the Senator from Nebraska a relatively fair-mined man, who means well, and wants to actually solve problems, not just score partisan points. Note that Sasse is a Yale educated (PhD) historian and a former college president, so he brings a lot more than his position as a Senator to the subject matter of his book. Listening to Sasse talk about the book I think it might serve as a useful companion to two other books I’ve read: Coming Apart and Strangers in Their Own Land.
Second there is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times. I can’t think of a more appropriate book or subject for those aspiring to lead or for those trying to understand what good leadership might look like during these very turbulent times in America.
And lastly, there is wine. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”Yes, the first two books will create enough concern….and so I need some relief in a book about this most civilized of things, the wine life. Hugh Johnson’s memoir, A Life Uncorked, is about a life of drinking and thinking wine. For this short list, it seems an appropriate finish.