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 important question is: What example does a public leader publicly model in both speech and action? Are they careful with their words? 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 moral courage may be shown in taking a stand that’s contrary to his own party’s public position (a “profile in courage”) 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.  

2 Comments

  1. Interesting that I found this entry. I grew up outside of Dallas and later moved to Houston after high school. My aunt was present when JFK was assassinated. It was a big discussion most of my childhood and adult life, so the whole ordeal stayed with me. I spent two years diving into conspiracies and reading everything I could on the subject. This was long before YouTube and podcasts. I took numerous trips to Dallas and took hundreds of photographs, drew sketches, and gathered notes of the area and angles of the location on that fateful day. Back then (early-mid 90s), I lived near a history professor and we attended the same church. He helped me organize it all. In short, I didn’t find much evidence of a conspiracy but I was left with three very hard questions that just can’t be answered. Documented and cited: 1. JFK bucked the system, especially with the post-WWII emerging Cold War intelligence agencies (JFK and his family owed many people for his election which was most certainly fraudulent). 2. There were powerful individuals and groups who wanted him out (to include individuals in our own government). 3. There was an obvious coverup of details. Does this make a conspiracy? Probably not, but it does leave open too many questions without any answers. I since moved on from the subject. Having discovered nothing new and losing interest as I grew older.

    What I learned during all of this was more about the man and his presidency. Had he not been assassinated it is certain that Vietnam and the succeeding escalation would have marred and ruined his presidency much like LBJ and GWB. JFK already showed intent to escalate forces and LBJ simply followed suit albeit in his own way. There are many things to admire about him but he was also a walking contradiction. He had character, whit, charm, intellect and seemed to always understand the moment he found himself in, which can be explained by the vision he had. He was bold. This is a certainty. One can gather this through his correspondence, official White House records, transcripts, and his military record. I was surprised how many relationships he had to include a friendship with Nixon. Nixon was even a personal adviser of sorts during JFK’s shortened presidency even after losing to him in a questionable election. However, his martyr status (which is quite normal given the circumstances) has whitewashed other aspects of his character, his family history, and even his presidency. This part is only a small point but it does show how a lot of the marketing and martyrdom remains. The book Profiles and Courage was not written or researched by JFK himself. The legal contract between him and Ted Sorensen gave Kennedy “authorship” though he never penned a word. One could argue that JFK was the first politician to combine personality with media, and as the media began lurching leftward in the 60s, it helped him in this way.

    Interesting that you compared RR to JFK or vice versa and I don’t think you’re wrong about that at all. JFK was immensely popular perhaps he was the first candidate to win a “popularity contest” that gave him the presidency over Nixon who at least on paper, was far more qualified at the time. I’ve cooled on RR over the years but it’s impossible to argue that he wasn’t popular and just plain likable. RR is rightfully deserving for his place in history. Because of that he, too, gets a pass on some aspects of his presidency (which there are more than a few). Same with BO and on we could go. Regardless, those men where heavy hitters as far as public captivation and popularity goes.

    Sorry for the length but this subject is so interesting to me. My purpose was not to question JFK’s bona fides or his presidency. It’s just that the man invites so much research obviously since there is a backdrop of intrigue, conspiracy, and power. As I left it then, so do I now. I’m okay with JFK and his place in history.

    • First, thank you for the very thoughtful comment.

      What I’ve learned about JFK over the decades has come from documentaries, history books, and a few bios. I would say my favorite book, though not specifically about JFK, was Ted Sorensen’s book, Counselor. I read that this past year and gleaned allot of interesting things about JFK from it.

      Growing up in a Republican family my initial views of JFK were negative…he was, or course, “a liberal” and I wasn’t suppose to care much for liberals. Being young, I knew nothing about what a liberal really was or the ideas that form liberalism’s history, nor did my youthful mind have the attention or concern to care about it. But time and education and working on Capitol Hill for almost 30 years changed all that.

      I was actually fortunate. Because of my old job I got to discuss the Warren Commission report with Senator Arlen Spector, who worked on the Commission after the JFK assassination. The Senator took his time with me one late night in the Senate subway to discuss various aspects of the report. I remember it well. He was pretty certain about the evidence and what a reasonable person could draw from it…. and so he dismissed the conspiracy theories solidly.

      As to those hard questions you had after much study.

      1. No doubt JFK owed many people for his election. Reading Sorensen’s descriptions of all the travel and meetings and deals being made during campaigns, especially during those times, really brings home the idea that politics is about relationships, compromises, and deal making. It always will be. Fraudulent? We don’t know for sure, but I’m doubtful of that right now. I’ve read about that and Republicans did challenge the results in various states, like Texas and Illinois–especially Cook County—but the courts and the evidence simply didn’t support the idea that there was enough fraud to have changed the outcome. And, more importantly, it appeared Nixon had received some help by way of potential fraud down state. Knowing how Nixon would exit the White House shouldn’t make the idea that he’d be just as or more underhanded than the Kennedy clan might be, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

      2. No doubt some entrenched conservatives in Washington didn’t care for JFK, and wanted him out. Especially in the military. I heard some tapes of JFK talking to some senior generals during the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of them was pushing JFK and being disrespectful. The general wanted to bomb Cuba because he felt that was the only way to handle this situation. Kennedy gently put the general in his place. JFK was not going to start WWIII if he could avoid it. The old establishment Pentagon thought war was the answer and JFK saw diplomacy and the hard work of avoiding of war as the first options. JFK was right. But pretty sure this good looking, smart, younger guy pissed off those older, WWII, “We know more than you do” generals. And then there was the whole Washington conservative political establishment that didn’t care for JFKs progressive spirit…that would see things like going to the moon, “because it is hard,” or the Peace Corp, or civil rights, as things they cared much for. And then you have all those in other places like Russia and Cuba and the mob who really didn’t care for JFK for various reasons and would prefer he was gone. But then ALL Presidents face this sort of enemy coalition of sorts once elected.

      3. No doubt there were cover-ups of various sorts, but like you said, a conspiracy? Probably not.

      One reason I became so much more interested in JFK lately is because of the election of Trump. Trump was the perfect storm of the worst of the worst in human attributes for a leader in my view, and I started to think about those other Presidents, while not perfect, at least tried to aspire to great leadership. Who tried, though sometimes failed, to live up to the dignity and responsibilities of the office.

      JFK was charming and intelligent and actually aspired to be a great leader….and it showed. That is all we can ask of our leaders…especially the ones in the White House. They’re not going to be perfect and we’d be fools to judge them on such a scale. But by their public words and actions—words and actions—we CAN judge whether they’re “trying” to be worthy of being a leader….of these United States and of the free world.

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