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Lessons from JFK


As the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s death approaches, Martin Robinson looks at what we can learn from the good – and not-so-good – traits of a 20th-century icon

As the skull fragments of John F Kennedy are picked over once again (it’s half a century since his death on 22 November), we’re stepping out of the gore in the president’s motorcade vehicle to instead look at the living man. What can we learn from this icon of leadership?

Well, try not to have sex with every girl you meet, for starters.

Yes, while there’s much inspiration to be gained from the man known to friends as Jackie Boy, there are also many examples of what you shouldn’t do. The clamour for power and influence grips us all. The question is, can you behave like a master politician and still hang on to your soul?

1. Image is everything

Welcome to politics. A world of hustlers, hucksters, phonies, narcissists and psychopaths; the very cream of the elite education system. What Jack – the second son of Joe Kennedy’s wealthy (and shady) dynasty – pioneered in politics, was grasping the power of image in the new mass media age. In the televised presidential debates with Richard Nixon in 1960, Kennedy’s tanned, white-teethed poise put Nixon’s shuffling, sweaty performance to shame. Crucially, Jack spoke directly to camera, knowing he was making eye contact with millions. Naive Americans, eh? Well, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg used exactly the same techniques during the television debates with David Cameron and Gordon Brown in 2010, and is now Deputy Prime Minister.

2. Your hair is a weapon

Jack was obsessed with his hair. His White House intern/mistress Mimi Alford said she administered his daily treatments, involving products from Frances Fox and a brush not a comb. Inspiring stuff.

3. And your shirts

Leaders are visible, so you need to look the part. JFK took it to extremes. Alford also said he hated feeling "sweaty and grimy" and would change shirts several times a day. To be fair, you’d change your shirt a few times too if you nearly instigated a nuclear apocalypse (see 16).

4. Don’t be so likeable you end up ineffectual

Overly concerned with making impressions, Jack was largely ineffectual for the first two years of his presidency. He failed to push his medicare and civil-rights bills past Congress, and said, "It is much easier to make the speeches than it is finally to make the judgments."

5. Keep victory in perspective

Jack kept a slip of paper with the number 118,574 on it – the narrow number of votes by which he beat Nixon to the presidency.

6. Never leave a man behind

While fighting off the coast of the Solomon Islands during the Second World War, Jack’s boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. With nearby islands occupied by Japanese forces, Lieutenant Kennedy ordered his troops to swim to an island three miles away. One of his engineers was disabled by burns, so Jack, despite back problems, swam the three miles with a life belt strap clamped between his teeth, towing the engineer behind him. Cliff Robertson later played Jack in the film of this incident, PT 109 (1963). His wife Jackie had originally wanted Warren Beatty to play him, which would have been apt (see 13).

7. Don’t fear death

Adorned with medals and worsening back pains after his heroics, Jack still reported back for duty and built a reputation for taking incredible risks with his attacks. Norman Mailer described this as "the wisdom of a man who senses death within him and gambles that he can cure it by risking his life".

Later, JFK would shrug off assassination risks, saying, "If someone is going to kill me, they are going to kill me."

8. Recruit the best

Kennedy’s White House team was nicknamed ‘Camelot’, due to its glamour and assemblage of the best and brightest. They included insiders from corporations and Wall St firms, intellectuals and progressives. He understood that you need new young people who will question everything.

9. Don't do things the way the last guy did them

Jack asked his new Secretary Of Defence, Robert McNamara – a civilian who had not long taken a job as president of Ford – to examine the Pentagon, particularly the Cold War amassment of arms under President Eisenhower. McNamara was shocked to discover the US had 25,000 nuclear weapons to the USSR’s 2,500. The president’s struggles with the military began.

10. Recognise your mistakes

Jack inherited Eisenhower’s plan for an invasion of Cuba’s Bay Of Pigs by 1,600 Cuban exiles in April 1961. CIA director Allen Dulles convinced him that the Cuban people would rise up to support it. But the invasion turned into a debacle, with no popular uprising. Jack then refused the generals’ requests for official US military support, fearing a Soviet confrontation. For now (see 16).

11. Learn to speak to people

Even JFK got nervous. When giving speeches, he would disguise his shaking hands with quick, controlled gestures. Despite this, he would give press conferences on average every 16 days. "Obama hasn’t even done 16 press conferences in total," says biographer Thurston Clarke. "This is why Kennedy was so mourned. People felt like they knew him."

12. Be a family man

Family is a ‘good look’, but it’s better if you really believe it (see 13 and 19).

13. Don’t be a compulsive sex fiend

Jack’s many affairs weren’t reported at the time, but it’s been one of the main ways his legacy has taken a battering. From White House interns to showgirls to film stars – Marilyn Monroe (Bobby did too), Elizabeth Taylor (in a threesome with actor Robert Stack), Marlene Dietrich (in the White House, when she was in her sixties and had previously had an affair with his father) and Angie Dickinson (during the inauguration celebrations) – Jack was relentless. Risk-taking can be addictive (see 7 and 18).

14. Get treated for addiction

Sex addiction, in Jack’s case. Also painkiller addiction (see 15).

15. Conquer your physical limitations

Despite his healthy image, JFK had a rare autoimmune condition, Addison’s disease, which was concealed. Coupled with his back problems, it meant he was on a daily cocktail of drugs, including methadone, barbiturates and Ritalin. Despite constant pain, he never lapsed into self-pity. As he said in 1962, "Life is unfair. Some people are sick, others are well."

16. Beware of posturing

Brinkmanship is risky. Due to the US and USSR’s nuclear stockpiles, ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) seemed a deterrent to actual war. Yet this meant both could act aggressively, knowing someone would stand down. Historian Eric Hobsbawm said of this time, "The main concern was how to prevent warlike gestures from being misinterpreted as actual moves to war." Due to Jack’s anti-Commie electioneering, the situations in Berlin and Vietnam, and pure macho bullsh*t, Kennedy and Khrushchev postured their way to the edge of Armageddon. The USSR revealed nuclear weapons in Cuba. Kennedy ordered a blockade. Soviet ships headed to the region, and for 13 days the world teetered on the edge.

17. Know when to make concessions

"Well, I guess this is the week I earn my salary," said the ever-wry Jack as the Cuban crisis peaked. He sent brother Robert to secretly meet with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and promised that the US would remove its nuclear weapons (which were obsolete!) from Turkey if they left Cuba, and kept these US concessions quiet. The confrontation was over. The time of US presidents posturing their way into conflicts was not.

18. It’s never too late to change

Towards the end, JFK put into motion plans that suggested events changed him. He made back-to-back speeches on 10 & 11 June 1963 that announced a new civil-rights bill and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets. Behind the scenes, there’s evidence he was making plans to withdraw from Vietnam in 1965, and wanted co-operation with the Soviets in the Space Race.

Such far-sighted moves made him many enemies at home. Lee Harvey Oswald may have worked alone on 22 November 1963, but if he’d wanted help, he would have found it.

19. Your way isn’t necessarily the only way

US democracy is largely accepted as the system most suited to human behaviour. The death of Jack Kennedy was the end of a more enlightened view. As he said in his speech about the Soviet Union in June 1963: "If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. 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."

‘Jacques Lowe: My Kennedy Years’ is at Proud Chelsea from 26 September to 24 November; proud.co.uk

(Images: Omaha Profile, Omaha Nebraska, Autumn 1959 © Estate of Jacques Lowe; Jackie, John F Kennedy and Caroline, Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, August 1960 © Estate of Jacques Lowe; Lumumba, The White House, February 13, 1961 © Estate of Jacques Lowe)



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