A few years back, I taught a class for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Diego State. Osher provides an affordable, pain-free way for mature adults to update their learning skills and mastery in a university classroom setting.
I organized the course around the period of the 1960’s and it was a lot of fun to teach – not least because the “students” were old enough (like me) to have lived through the events we discussed and debated during the six weeks of the class. We covered the Cold War, Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement but focused specifically on John F. Kennedy as a kind of avatar for the era.
To me, JFK is a most interesting case because - along with his many successes and frequent failures - I perceive him as someone who thought differently than many of his predecessors or successors. While he served as President for only 34 months, he wrestled constantly with many of the major issues of the 20th Century and I believe that he often reacted in unconventional ways to the challenges thrust upon him. An outsider from a family of outsiders, he had been able to seize the seat of power in a democracy controlled by insiders…a fact which I think created layers of tension both above and below the surface of things within his administration.
For those of us coming of age at that time, he was also the first President in our experience who actually cool. Here’s a segment of a novel-in-process of mine in which a college student is reflecting on the just-assassinated President:
JFK had been different. Not just the part about being Catholic, although that was
something new and special. There was something about the way he carried himself, his
essential coolness, the way he seemed to be telling himself little jokes all the time and it
made him smile just a little, just to himself, but you could see it. Like he was in on
something that everyone else was missing, something you didn’t see, that nobody could
see but him. He was younger, too, younger than the old men who had gone before,
wrinkled and bespectacled and long past their physical prime. He looked good. He even
dressed in a cool sort of way, no hat, sport-jackets – often with no tie. His wife looked
good too, really good, if you liked that Manhattanville upper-class kind of thing.
As I was preparing material for the Osher course, I stumbled upon something that struck me: a sequence of dramatic events over just three days in a single week in 1963 that could be seen as epitomizing – in microcosm - the tumultuous decade of the 60’s and Kennedy’s role within it.
The week of June 10, 1963 was a significant one in a number of ways. For the United States, it highlighted some of the big issues the country was attempting to grapple with…up to that point unsuccessfully, it might be added. For John F. Kennedy, then occupying the White House, it provided a full slate of personal and professional challenges.
Looking back on it, I believe it offers an additional insight into the way that often events are in the saddle and, in Emerson’s words, tend to ride mankind.
Here were the first three days of that week:
Monday, June 10th Kennedy gave a speech at American University in Washington in which he philosophized on the Cold War and the insanity of nuclear confrontation. Remember: this was only eight short months after the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world had arguably come as close as it ever has to an exchange of nuclear weapons. One has to wonder if that experience – with the fate of the world literally in his hands – changed John Kennedy. Was there the equivalent of a deathbed epiphany in which the scales all finally fell from his eyes and he recognized the confrontational behavior of the two super-powers as a form of madness?
So, let us not be blind to our differences-but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.
The speech can be said to have led directly to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the U.S. and the USSR signed later that year.
The very next day, Tuesday the 11th, the President had to contend with the spectacle of Governor George Wallace of Alabama, standing in the entryway to Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus to prevent the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood. This was not a comfortable issue for JFK. He probably had no experience in dealing with African Americans who weren’t celebrities, athletes or servants. And yet, he was somehow able to rise to the occasion, giving his long-awaited speech on Civil Rights that same evening.
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
Shortly after that address, in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers, would be assassinated in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
JFK got a double whammy later that same morning: news of the Evers murder and the photo of a burning Buddhist monk on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune. On the day before – and 13,000 miles away – Thich Quang Duc, angered by the aggressive behavior of South Vietnam’s Diem regime toward his fellow Buddhists, had set himself on fire on a street in Saigon.
JFK’s reported reaction to the photo of Thich Quang Duc’s immolation was one of sheer horror. His second reaction was probably the recognition that he’d been the recipient of massive misinformation about the situation in Vietnam by untrustworthy subordinates – many following their own separate agendas. There has been some level of controversy over the years regarding JFK’s actual intentions toward continuation of the war by late 1963. If there was a triggering event that may have confirmed his worst fears and deepest doubts about our engagement there, this horrific photo may have qualified.
Quite a week…and it was only Wednesday.
Something that most people forget but leaders know from experience is that a leader’s time is a battleground constantly fought over by clashing interests and unpredictable events. We don’t get to choose the order – or the pace – by which our problems arise to confront us. Given this untidy fact, the way a leader chooses to apportion her time becomes a critical balancing act requiring both intellectual resilience and a keen eye for the decisive over the merely urgent.
Leadership, we must remind ourselves, is not for the faint of heart.