Art of the presidency of JFK

Kennedy and McNamara and General Taylor

President Kennedy well understood how to utilize power. He also knew the limits of power. Kennedy identified four weaknesses in the institution of the Presidency. First, one could not just assume that orders given would be carried out. Second, the Presidency was just the first among three co-equal branches of government. Third, one of the greatest dangers in a Presidency comes from not hearing too many diverse voices, but from only hearing what one wants to hear. Finally, President Kennedy understood that a President's popularity could easily be swayed by how newspapers, (or, now, television), last reported about what he had said or done. President Kennedy made deliberate and mostly successful efforts to overcome all these weaknesses.

In examining President Kennedy" daily schedules and comparing them to those of several other modern Presidents, one of the things that stands out most vividly is the number of times the President met with subordinate government officials. Not only did Kennedy meet with the members of his Cabinet-- the Secretaries of all the government agencies --, but he would regularly meet with the Under-Secretaries. He not only met frequently with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he met with the heads of the other services, and other senior military officers such as the Chief of Naval Operations or the Commanders of the Strategic Air Command. One could contend that the President was not being an efficient administrator. In response, it could be argued that while President Kennedy's methods of direct leadership may not always have been the most efficient way to operate, they virtually guaranteed that the President's views could not be misconstrued or misinterpreted since a variety of officials at all levels were getting the message directly from the President himself.

With his oversized personality, Kennedy's wide circle of personal meetings ensured that subordinates at all levels of government became enthusiastic supporters of his goals. The President also met with almost every US Ambassador before that ambassador traveled to take up his or her post. This included the ambassadors of even the smallest and most remote countries. President Kennedy often met the ambassadors when they were back in Washington for consultations. He understood that these meetings could convey to observer the importance with which he viewed the ambassador and the countries in which they were serving. He knew that nothing could surpass the power of a statement such as this: " When I was meeting with the President, he said€¦" when spoken by a US Ambassador to the leader of his host country. In the blink of an eye, that ambassador's status was immeasurably enhanced.

President Kennedy understood that significant power could be created through the development of personal relationships. That was what he sought to do. Whether it was within the executive branch of government, or beyond it, JFK was a master of relationship-building.

Those relationships were not limited to the borders of the United States. Relationship-building abroad was essential, considering that the US was deeply involved in the Cold War; a war that required winning over the hearts and minds of nations throughout the world.

The President hosted a total of 14 official dinners and luncheon for foreign guests in his first year alone. Whether from the smallest African state or from a European ally, President Kennedy's attentions demonstrated real respect for their countries. When a foreign dignitary was in town, Kennedy would not have just one short meeting with that dignitary, but as many as two or three meetings. With leaders of America's closest allies, such as Britain or Germany, the President forged close working relationships through many multi-hour meetings on multiple occasions during his Presidency. The President also met with foreign ambassadors, both when they arrived, when they completed their service and often in between. He understood two important constants: first, upon returning to his nation, a former ambassador to the US would, no doubt, be a person of significant influence in that country. This, building a personal relationship to these ambassadors was, in essence, building a bridge to the future. Second, an Ambassador who serving in the United States might be a little bit more positively disposed towards America, something that could be strengthened by the President meeting face-to-face with them. The President also understood that these meetings could enhance these individuals€™ standing in their home countries.

Kennedy also understood that he would need the support of the other two branches of government to accomplish his agenda. Therefore, from the very start of his Presidency to the week before he was assassinated, the President was constantly wooing the Congress, and to a lesser extent the Judiciary. Kennedy would have weekly breakfast meetings with Legislative leaders at the White House to coordinate the actions of the Executive and Legislative branches. He sponsored a Congressional coffee hour or reception at least once or twice each month. During these sessions he would invite groups of Senators and Congressmen to socialize at the White House.

There was hardly a day that President Kennedy was at the White House in which he did not meet with a key Senator or Congressman to discuss one matter or another. He knew he had to woo them and woo them he did. The same was true of the Judiciary. The night before President Kennedy left for his fateful trip to Texas he held a reception for the Judiciary, attended by the Supreme Court Justices, their wives and members of the lower courts. The President's two appointees to the Supreme Court were not unknown to him. In fact, both had come from within his administration: Arthur Goldberg had been his Secretary of Labor and Byron White had served as his Assistant Attorney General. The President met regularly with Supreme Court Justice Douglas. It was unlikely that he would be surprised by a decision of the Supreme Court. In fact, Kennedy saw the Supreme Court as an ally in his fight to change the country.

The President also knew he needed to deepen his relationship to the press. He started his Presidency with a number of personal relationships with members of the press. President Kennedy had a relationship with Phil Graham, the Publisher of the Washington Post. He cultivated a friendship with Joseph Alsop as well. He also made sure to meet at least once or twice a week with key journalist, off the record. Kennedy further made sure the Press felt he was accessible to them, and through them to the American People. In just under 35 months as President, Kennedy conducted a total of 64 full-fledged press conferences. In contrast, President Obama hosted nine press conferences in his first 23 months as President. The President worked hard to reach out to many members of the press, no matter what that person's level of seniority. Twice a month, on average, the President hosted a luncheon for the newspaper publishers and editors of a different state; no state was too small for the President's systematic effort to win over the nation's press.

Finally, the President was constantly seeking input from outside the White House orbit. He would meet regularly with businessmen, such as Thomas Watson, Jr. from IBM, or scientists, like Dr. Edward Teller, or major Union figures such as Walter Reuther from the United Auto Workers. Kennedy was never willing to rely solely on those people who reported to him. Of course, it was always a two-way street as Kennedy also sought to influence those with whom he met. But it remained of primary important to Kennedy to amass information from the widest range of possible sources.