Ethics Alarms Celebrates Presidents Day: The Speeches. IV. President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

In some ways, Jack Kennedy was the anti-matter Donald Trump.

He unified the country with optimistic words and soaring idealism, and was treated by the media and much of the public as if appearances and substance were the same thing. Like Trump, he was rich and the son of a ruthless business man; unlike with our current President, few seemed to care. JFK was young and vigorous (or as he would say, “vigahrous”), and nobody accused him  of hyperbole and lies. The press loved him; his press conferences were all laughs and smiles. Yet Kennedy was every bit the narcisisist that Donald Trump is, and at least as much of a misogynist. He engaged in open nepotism, having his brother as his Attorney General and chief advisor, but nobody suggested he was hving incestuous relations with Bobby. Both had glamorous wives, but while Melania has been effectively banned from the covers of women’s magazines, Jackie was on a cover every month, if not every week. Kennedy committed impeachable offenses, like having a secret sexual liaison with an Israeli spy (and Mafia moll), but it was Trump who was impeached. Meanwhile, President Trump’s accomplishments in his first term far exceed those of Kennedy, who also managed to prompt East Germany to erect the Berlin Wall, and to nearly trigger World War III.

His inaugural address, however, marked his Presidency as the gateway to a new era, when anything was possible. Kennedy was not a great orator—all the Kennedys had and have a tendency to shout—but he was a a passionate one, and he had charisma, that indefinable magic that makes strangers love and trust a politician. Though he had barely received 50% of the votes in the 1960 election, nearly seventy-five percent of Americans expressed approval of President Kennedy after this speech.

Mostly crafted by Kennedy aide Ted Sorenson, it is undeniably a masterpiece.

Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, Reverend Clergy, fellow citizens:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end as well as a beginning–signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge–and more.

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do–for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom–and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required–not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge–to convert our good words into good deeds–in a new alliance for progress–to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house. Continue reading

A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 4 and Final): The Wild, Wild Ride From FDR to W.

smiling-presidents

All of the Presidents (except FDR) in this last section were alive and kicking while I was, and so to me they are both more real and less fascinating to some extent. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, a tendency not to idealize. These leaders are no more flawed than their predecessors, they just seem that way thanks to mass media.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt

Three terms plus, a World War, a Depression, a transformative Presidency and an epic life spent in public service: FDR is another President who can’t be summed up in an anecdote, one book, or a hundred. He accomplished enough great things to be a deserving icon; he committed enough wrongs to be judged a villain. (He was pretty clearly a sociopath, but a lot of great leaders are, including a fair proportion of ours, including some of the best.) The only completely unfair verdict on this Roosevelt is not to acknowledge the importance and complexity of his life. Here are some of my favorite items about him:

  • FDR wrote down a plan when he was still in school outlining the best way for him to become President. The plan was essentially to follow his distant cousin Theodore’s career steps: Harvard, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice-Presidential candidate, and President. (He skipped “Rough Rider.”) Amazingly, he followed it, and it worked.
  • Conventional wisdom holds that FDR’s polio transformed his character, and that without that crisis and challenge he would have been content to be a rich dilettante. I doubt it, but there is no question that he fits the Presidential survivor template, and that his ordeal made him stronger, more formidable and more determined.
  • Many Presidents had strong mothers, especially, for some reason, many of our Chief Executives from Roosevelt to Obama. Franklin’s mom, however, wins the prize. It’s amazing Eleanor didn’t murder her. But Mrs. Roosevelt is why Eleanor was there in the first place: all of our Presidents raised by strong mothers married very strong wives.
  • If a computer program were designed to create the perfect American leader, it would give us FDR. He was the complete package; his charisma, charm and power radiate from recordings and films that are 90 years old. That smile! That chin! That head! That voice! He is one of the very few Presidents who would be just as  popular and effective today as the era in which he lived.
  • And just as dangerous. FDR is also a template for an American dictator, which, I believe, he would have been perfectly willing to be. It’s no coincidence that Franklin was the only President to break Washington’s wise tradition of leaving office after two terms.
  • Political and philosophical arguments aside, at least four of Roosevelt actions as President were horrific, and would sink the reputation of most leaders: 1) Imprisoning Japanese-Americans (and German-Americans, too); 2) Ignoring the plight of European Jews as long as he did, when it should have been clear what was going on; 3) Handing over Eastern Europe to Stalin, and 4) Knowing how sick he was, giving little thought or care to who his running mate was in 1944.
  • Balancing all that, indeed outweighing it, is the fact that the United States of America and quite possibly the free world might not exist today if this unique and gifted leader were not on the scene. Three times in our history, the nation’s existence depended on not just good leadership, but extraordinary leadership, and all three times, the leader we needed emerged: Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin. I wouldn’t count on us being that lucky again.

I left the bulk of reflection about the character and leadership style of Theodore Roosevelt to one of Teddy’s own speeches to embody, and I’ll do the same for his protege.

On September 23, 1932, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech at Manhattan’s Commonwealth Club. (Everyone, conservative, liberal or moderate, should read it….here.) It was a defining statement of progressive principles and modern liberalism, redefining core American values according to the perceived needs of a changing nation and culture.  It is a radical speech, and would be regarded as radical by many today, even after much of what Roosevelt argued was reflected in the policies of the New Deal.

After sketching the origins and progress of the nation to the present, he flatly stated that the Founders’ assumptions no longer applied:

A glance at the situation today only too clearly indicates that equality of opportunity as we have know it no longer exists. Our industrial plant is built; the problem just now is whether under existing conditions it is not overbuilt. Our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land. More than half of our people do not live on the farms or on lands and cannot derive a living by cultivating their own property. There is no safety valve in the form of a Western prairie to which those thrown out of work by the Eastern economic machines can go for a new start. We are not able to invite the immigration from Europe to share our endless plenty. We are now providing a drab living for our own people….

Just as freedom to farm has ceased, so also the opportunity in business has narrowed. It still is true that men can start small enterprises, trusting to native shrewdness and ability to keep abreast of competitors; but area after area has been preempted altogether by the great corporations, and even in the fields which still have no great concerns, the small man starts with a handicap. The unfeeling statistics of the past three decades show that the independent business man is running a losing race. Perhaps he is forced to the wall; perhaps he cannot command credit; perhaps he is “squeezed out,” in Mr. Wilson’s words, by highly organized corporate competitors, as your corner grocery man can tell you.

Recently a careful study was made of the concentration of business in the United States. It showed that our economic life was dominated by some six hundred odd corporations who controlled two-thirds of American industry. Ten million small business men divided the other third. More striking still, it appeared that if the process of concentration goes on at the same rate, at the end of another century we shall have all American industry controlled by a dozen corporations, and run by perhaps a hundred men. Put plainly, we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already.

Clearly, all this calls for a re-appraisal of values.

So Franklin Roosevelt re-appraised them: Continue reading

Bill Clinton’s Unethical Fun at the Expense of Obama’s Presidency

With friends like Bill Clinton, President Obama hardly needs enemies.

In the middle of a crisis in his Presidency, with former supporters and allies joining critics in questioning his character, judgment, courage and leadership, Obama turned to a former president for counsel, just as many Chief Executives before him have done when the wolf was at the door. William Jefferson Clinton, however is nothing if not a hound for attention, and while Obama struggles with the mantle of leadership, Clinton is especially comfy in it. Thus when what was supposed to be a White House brief photo-op for the press gave Clinton a clear path to an open mike, he grabbed it, and promptly made look weaker than ever. As the Washington Post described the scene:

“After brief remarks by Obama, Clinton slid behind the lectern as if he’d never left the building. For a time it looked like he might never leave, as he fielded questions from a White House press corps eager to keep him as long as it could. He stroked his chin. He folded his arms and looked pensive. He gesticulated expansively. He was part professor and full politician enjoying the spotlight.

“After a few minutes, Obama seemed to conclude that he would be better served by being out of the picture than as a bystander. “I’ve been keeping the first lady waiting for about half an hour, so I’m going to take off,” he said. Clinton responded, “Well, I – I don’t want to make her mad. Please go.”

“And with that, Clinton had the stage to himself.”

He just couldn’t help himself. Continue reading