JFK: What today’s leaders can learn from him

Presidnet Kennedy taking questions at a press conference.
Presidnet Kennedy taking questions at a press conference.

One of the great wonders in the study of history is how things so remote can still hold valuable lessons for us today. Such is the case with the presidency and assassination of John F. Kennedy, whose brief but energizing administration came to a shocking and tragic end 50 years ago this month.

To the 210 million Americans — two-thirds of us — who weren’t even alive that fateful day in November 1963, the days of “Camelot” may seem ancient — flickering black-and-white images of a bygone era. It was a world in which presidents rode in open limousines, the TV news aired just once an evening on only three networks, and the sound of four lads from Liverpool hadn’t yet started to emerge from American teenagers’ transistor radios.

It was a different time with a different kind of leader, and the approaching anniversary of JFK’s death provides research institutions like Nova Southeastern University (NSU), which is celebrating its 50th birthday in 2014, an opportunity to assess Americans’ feelings about the Kennedy myth vs. modern reality. A new national poll commissioned by NSU shows that both the style and substance of the Kennedy years still resonate today, and Americans see some relevant lessons about the divisive gridlock that defines so much of today’s political establishment.

Photographs and the passage of time have left a picture of President Kennedy as a man of wit, charm, vigor, grace and humor. Historians recognize that he was also a tough political tactician, but it is JFK’s vibrant side that most Americans now wish was more present in the style of modern leaders. When asked if they could instill one of five specific characteristics of Kennedy into today’s leaders, Americans most typically chose his ability to build public and political support for policy change (41 percent). The next most popular choice was his ability to set a bold objective for the country to achieve (28 percent).

This means that more than two in three Americans want leaders with high aspirations, who set ambitious goals for the nation and then work well with others to produce meaningful results. Perhaps the hardened American voting public hasn’t given up hope after all — or do we merely long for a type of leadership lost to the passage of time?

With much political debate today barely rising above the import of a “did not!” vs. “did too!” shouting match, it’s interesting to note that even after 50 years, Kennedy’s handling of a true global crisis continues to earn him the highest marks. All of South Florida, including Nova Southeastern’s home area of Fort Lauderdale, was in great peril in 1962 as the Soviets tried to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, squarely aimed at the United States. JFK’s resolute determination to stop them was a defining moment of his presidency — and of the very institution of the presidency. Asked to consider Kennedy’s greatest legacy, respondents in the NSU-commissioned poll cited his management of the Cuban Missile Crisis more than any other achievement. That is a stunning reflection of how JFK’s management of a global-level crisis is respected and remembered.

It’s not unreasonable to interpret a widespread longing for that kind of leadership today — or for the kind of direct communication Kennedy introduced through the television age. When asked which modern-era president best reflected JFK’s positive qualities such as communication skills, charisma, inspiring leadership and clear vision, the leading choices were the best communicators among recent White House occupants: Ronald Reagan (36 percent) and Bill Clinton (32 percent).

So what can we learn from the NSU-commissioned poll of the Kennedy legacy, which was conducted for us by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research? Reading between the lines, we can see that modern American voters want a leader who is decisive, who effectively communicates his goals both to the public and to his political friends and foes, and who recognizes that leadership is more than slogans and sound bites.

Presidents are only human, after all is said and done, and John F. Kennedy was surely as human as any of us. While the Kennedy legacy means different things to different people, it is clear that its broadest base is founded upon a comforting reality: Americans want their president to lead, inspire and involve all of us in ambitious goals for worthwhile purposes. Fifty years later, that is a lesson today’s leaders and would-be leaders should take to heart.

George L. Hanbury II is the sixth president of Nova Southeastern University, which is observing its 50th anniversary. Located in Fort Lauderdale, NSU is the nation’s ninth-largest private not-for-profit university.

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