How did John F. Kennedy, a playboy senator with an undistinguished record, win the ultimate prize in politics and become America’s most admired modern president?
The answer is simple: He knew that, above all, the American people want to be told the truth. As the intensely fought 1960 presidential campaign climaxed, he declared that he ran for president “to serve the American people, not to please them.”
Like Hillary Clinton, John F. Kennedy was a centrist Democrat with a short list of accomplishments, and designated heir to a political dynasty. Like Donald Trump, Kennedy was the scion of a New York City real estate mogul (one of his father’s lesser-known revenue streams) whose 1960 slogan “Let’s Get This Country Moving Again” foreshadowed Trump’s “Let's Make America Great Again.”
But unlike any of the current candidates, and most contemporary American politicians for that matter, Kennedy understood the true meaning of the much bloviated-about “American Exceptionalism.” As a politician, candidate, and president, Kennedy demonstrated that one of the highest forms of American patriotism is to openly admit the truth about our national weaknesses and failings, and try to fix them.
Beneath the tailored Italian-cut suits and perpetual Palm Beach tan, Kennedy was a bare-knuckled political infighter and a muscular Cold Warrior, who also knew that admitting America’s problems before the world was not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. He understood that the only way America could lead other nations was through the moral example of how it treated its own citizens, and how America addressed issues of poverty, intolerance, and injustice. In a 1960 campaign speech, he declared, “We will never be strong in the world, we will never be respected, unless we are strong here in the United States.” In another speech, he explained, “to be respected abroad, we must build the kind of society in this country that commands respect, that gives every citizen an opportunity to develop his or her talent.”
Kennedy once speculated that Americans “love our country, not for what it was, though it has always been great—not for what it is, though of this we are deeply proud—but for what it someday can, and, through the efforts of us all, someday will be.”
The 1960 campaign was a brutal, close-fought slugfest that saw Kennedy squeak past Richard Nixon with a relative handful of votes. Kennedy had the advantage of vast amounts of his father’s cash (some of it deployed as payoffs, critics allege) and a reputation as a decorated war action-hero in the PT 109 incident, a World War II fiasco that saw two of his sailors killed in a collision with a Japanese destroyer.
Kennedy was far from perfect in his private or public lives. In his presidential campaign, he lied about the severity of his medical problems, and he lied about the extent of the so-called “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. In the critical West Virginia Democratic primary, his campaign sanctioned the “dirty trick” exploitation of his PT 109 experience that torpedoed the chances of his opponent Hubert Humphrey by inaccurately labeling him a draft dodger, which led Humphrey to quit in despair and clear the path for Kennedy to seize his party’s nomination.
Kennedy’s brief presidency was a roller-coaster ride of crises, failures, and occasional triumphs, like the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis and passage of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
But when JFK tragically fumbled the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, he told the American people the truth, saying, in effect, “It was my fault.” They rewarded him with a burst of approval. In office, he discussed the issues of the day directly with the American people in regular TV press conferences that are case studies in candor, confidence, humility, mastery of detail, and humor.
In office, Americans showered Kennedy with the highest average presidential approval ratings Gallup has ever measured. In many polls since his death, JFK has repeatedly been ranked near or at the very top of the list of most admired presidents.
Like his fellow “Great Communicators” FDR and Ronald Reagan, Kennedy knew that to win the White House and lead the nation, he needed to focus the nation’s discontent toward a clear, inspiring vision of America’s future, a vision based on objective truth, something none of the current crop of candidates is doing effectively.
If they carefully studied JFK’s playbook, they could learn a lot about winning.