This month (May 29) marks the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth and an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s youngest elected president.
The 100 people I interviewed for a book in 2013 provided observations and insights about his leadership that are relevant to elected officials today — from the current occupant of the Oval Office to the mayor of Tacoma.
Here are four leadership traits of America’s 35th president:
▪ JFK outlined goals to engage his constituents and provided them opportunities to fulfill them.
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Kennedy’s inaugural address probably is best remembered for the line, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Fewer than six weeks later, he signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps and then obtained congressional approval for the program.
Seattle resident Ann Owens was a 24-year-old third-grade teacher with “a good life and a nice boyfriend.” Her Peace Corps stint in Ethiopia, she said, “appealed to my sense of service, and he called us to a higher calling to do something outside yourself, outside your country.”
▪ JFK owned up to his mistakes and sought counsel to learn from them.
Three months after he took the oath of office, Kennedy authorized the CIA and Pentagon to launch the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in an attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. It was a colossal failure and an opportunity for Castro and Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev to strengthen their relationship.
Kennedy sought the advice of his predecessor, President Dwight Eisenhower, who had served as supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II.
Journalist Sid Davis covered that meeting at Camp David: “Eisenhower questioned Kennedy about how he went into the operation. ‘Did you ask how many troops there were? Did you ask about air support?’ And Kennedy said ‘No’ to every one of Eisenhower’s inquiries. Mr. Eisenhower said in effect, ‘How could you have started this thing if you had not asked those questions?’ ”
▪ JFK took action based on what he learned from his mistakes.
In October 1962, the world came closer to nuclear attack than it had ever before or since — the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy knew the U.S. could not stand for Soviet missiles just over 100 miles from the mainland.
Over the next 13 days, he and his 24-member National Security Council executive committee discussed, debated and deliberated courses of action. He asked the generals questions he should have asked prior to the Bay of Pigs; he also relied heavily on the counsel of his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Steve Schlesinger, whose father Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was special assistant to the president, remarked: “JFK handled the showdown in a way that got us out of the crisis and we won the confrontation with Khrushchev — there was a brilliance in the way he managed it.”
▪ JFK recognized the weight of his responsibilities and moral obligations of the office.
Kennedy was a student of history, as evidenced by his books, including “Why England Slept” and “Profiles in Courage,” the latter a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He learned of the horrors of war as a PT boat commander during WWII.
Nicholas Katzenbach, who served both Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the Justice Department, commented on the gravity of the issues and decisions Kennedy faced, especially regarding the integration of the University of Alabama and prisoners captured during the Cuban Missile Crisis:
“Both incidents, I think, reflected his position, essentially, ‘I have a position of authority and I have a responsibility for these issues and, therefore, I have a moral obligation to do something.’”
Kennedy assumed the mantle of the presidency at age 43 and evolved over the 1,000 days he served. My research provided me a glimpse of a man who was brilliant, witty, charming — and deeply flawed. All are characteristics that make up his leadership style and legacy.
Whether your name is Donald Trump or Marilyn Strickland, there is value in studying those characteristics.
Federal Way resident Dean R. Owen is author of “November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination and Legacy of John F. Kennedy.”
Hear him speak
Who: Dean R. Owen, author of a book on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
When: May 11, 7 p.m.
Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
For more information: tinyurl.com/lz6678t.