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JFK set benchmark for owning up

We originally published the following post on Feb. 1, 2004. We’re reproducing it as a permanent page because it describes an example of presidential leadership and integrity that is both timely and timeless.

In April 1961, a still-new president John F. Kennedy authorized what quickly became “the worst defeat of his career,” in the words of his speech writer and biographer, Theodore Sorensen.

That defeat was the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles armed, financed, trained and coordinated by the CIA and U.S. military. Their mission was to land sufficient forces in Cuba to spark a counterrevolution, oust communist dictator Fidel Castro and liberate their homeland.

In the event, the intelligence proved bad, the planning shoddy, the invading forces and firepower insufficient. Exile forces suffered heavy losses and 1,113 wound up imprisoned. Kennedy had had misgivings but felt preparations had gone too far to stop. His military and CIA advisers had urged going ahead, and Kennedy had not wanted to appear soft or indecisive.

In “Kennedy” Sorensen describes the day after:

“But as we walked on the South Lawn Thursday morning, he seemed to me a depressed and lonely man. To guard national unity and spirit, he was planning a determined speech to the nation’s editors that afternoon and a series of talks with every Republican leader. The Bay of Pigs had been – and would be – the worst defeat of his career, the kind of outright failure to which he was not accustomed. He knew that he had handed his critics a stick with which they would forever beat him; that his quick strides toward gaining the confidence of other nations had been set back; that Castro’s shouting boasts would dangerously increase the cold war frustrations of the American people; and that he had unnecessarily worsened East-West relations just as the (nuclear weapons) test ban talks were being resumed.

“`There’s an old saying,’ he later told his press conference, `that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. . . . I am the responsible officer of the government and that is quite obvious.” But as we walked that Thursday morning, he told me, at times in caustic tones, of some of the other fathers of this defeat who had let him down. By taking full blame upon himself he was winning the admiration of both career servants and the public, avoiding partisan investigations and attacks, and discouraging further attempts by those involved to leak their versions and accusations. But his assumption of responsibility was not merely a political device or a constitutional obligation. He felt it strongly, sincerely, and repeated it as we walked. `How could I have been so far off base?’ he asked himself out loud. `All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?’

“His anguish was doubly deepened by the knowledge that the rest of the world was asking the same question.”

Presidents do make mistakes, sometimes with terrible, life-and-death consequences resulting. JFK handled his debacle personally, promptly and forthrightly. He engaged in no blame-shifting, made no effort to recast the attempt at regime change as some kind of minor probing of Castro’s defenses, never tried to justify his mistake by belaboring how bad Castro was or paint it as anything but a mistake.

That’s presidential leadership of the highest caliber, quickly and naturally forthcoming when the going is toughest, when it’s clear there will be no happy ending.

9 Comments

  1. Bill Miller says:

    Surely no one would be so unfair to compare George W. Bush to JFK. But there is a key phrase that JFK uses as he accepts responsibility: “I am the responsible officer of the government..”. There is no specious claim of ‘unitary executive’ but the realization that in America, the president is one of many ‘officers’ of the government. The highest officer, yes, but one of many because our system of government is designed to be one of checks and balances, one where competing ideas yield the course of policy; not one where the executive acts as though he has no one to answer to and certainly not one where the office of president is on par with that of ‘dictator’ or ’emperor,’ where no one can disagree and no counsel is heeded.

    There would be no PATRIOT act under JFK; there would be no dispensing with habeas corpus under JFK and no infringement on the Bill of Rights under JFK and no criminal negligence leading to a 9/11 attack under JFK. How far we have fallen.

  2. S.W. Anderson says:

    How far we have fallen indeed. Thanks for adding your thoughts, Bill Miller. I couldn’t agree more.

  3. mike bock says:

    Kennedy was guided by ideals and principles. He called on people to seek their better selves and he challenged America to move toward a future that would fulfill the dreams of those who founded her. Kennedy was prior to the age of the cynic.

    One positive outcome of the George W debacle is that Americans may eventually start looking for the anti-George — someone who values the mind, who values understanding, who values the promise that the ideal of America has for those who want hope — and, in their looking, they may rediscover great Americans of the past who are worthy or emulation.

  4. S.W. Anderson says:

    Mike, that’s a beautiful, powerful thought. You keep that thought and I will too.

  5. rightsaidfred says:

    Nice thoughts, but have the Democrats honored Kennedy’s sentiments? We joke that the Democrats became the party of “ask not what you can do for your country, ask instead what your country can do for you” but there is more to this than the Dems. will admit.

  6. Fred may be right: Democrats may not have honored JFK’s sentiments to quite the extent that Republicans continue to honor Richard Nixon’s legacy.

  7. Denis Hogan says:

    Gentlemen,
    Befoe we elevate taking responsibility for defeat to a virtue, let us reflect that if the invading Cubans had had effective and sustained close air support in the role of overhead fighter cover along with close attack bombers, they very well could have been successful. President Kennedy allowed the invasion, knowing air support was necessary and essential to the survival and the sucess of the invading force. His judgement to withhold it, or loss of nerve, however one asseses it, condemed these Cuban patriots to death, defeat and torturous captivity.

    Either he should have stopped it prior to the invasion, or he should have supported it fully as they thought had been agreed to do.

    Saying he was responsible was no more than the literal truth, was in fact a brilliant political move, but it should not have shielded him from the castigation he deserved for failure to win and failure to support a comrade under fire.

    For all the complaints written in these few posts of President Bush, he has had the courage to follow the policies he believes are required, even if that earns him condemnation and approbation. The fight against Islamofascism, radical Islam, is just as deadly, and just as necessary as the decades long fight to confront and defeat communism.

    Sincerely,

    Denis Hogan

  8. Marc Krevo says:

    We all make mistakes, the only fruitful question is, what do we learn from them.

  9. chiz says:

    Good post. You make some great points that most people do not fully understand.

    “Presidents do make mistakes, sometimes with terrible, life-and-death consequences resulting. JFK handled his debacle personally, promptly and forthrightly. He engaged in no blame-shifting, made no effort to recast the attempt at regime change as some kind of minor probing of Castro’s defenses, never tried to justify his mistake by belaboring how bad Castro was or paint it as anything but a mistake.”

    I like how you explained that. Very helpful. Thanks.

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