November 22, 2013

Commentary - Kennedy's wit and humor: A legacy for political leadership

By Dan Glickman
This was originally published on the Hill Blog.

John F. Kennedy will be remembered for many things.  The lives he touched and the people of all backgrounds he brought together during his tenure in the White House leaves a legacy that will be emulated for ages.  JFK represented a young and dynamic America that helped to sustain our leadership and strength among our friends and adversaries worldwide.  The good he accomplished, whether it was the formation of the Peace Corps, NASA and the space program, or his deft handling of the Cuban missile crisis preventing a possible nuclear war, far outweighed the failures. But the difficulties he faced were made so much easier by the personal rapport he established with the people of the world, in large part due to his sense of humor.

He possessed a quality that great leaders use to cope with the crises of their era, which is a splendid natural wit and self-deprecating humor.

Take, for example, during the 1960 campaign when pundits and opponents complained about his wealth, he simply replied "I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy.  'Dear Jack, Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary.  I'll be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide."

Or when he appointed his brother Bobby to be Attorney General amid calls of nepotism he replied "I see nothing wrong with giving Robert some legal experience as Attorney General before he goes out to practice law."  Or when a young boy asked him how he became a war hero, he gracefully responded that "it was absolutely involuntary; they sunk my boat."

Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill used to say, "In politics if you have a problem or challenge, hang a lantern on it."  Kennedy's ability to be warm, self-effacing, and authentic allowed him to hang that lantern, and generate the warm feelings the public still holds for him today that allowed him to confront the difficult challenges he and the country faced during his presidency.

Kennedy had the first ever live, televised presidential news conference that gave the public the chance to see his grace, judgment and humor in action.  These were the first opportunities the American people had seen a president answer questions on the spot from the Washington press corps, and  Kennedy did not disappoint.

I remember coming home from high school in Wichita and watching this great television with my mother. The impact on me was enormous.  The president's comedic timing was impeccable and he garnered enormous viewership in the process.  When he was asked about the press treatment of his presidency, he famously replied "well I am reading more and enjoying it less."

When one reporter inquired about his views on the Republican National Committee adopting a measure declaring he was a failure as president, he replied "I presume it passed unanimously."

My favorite moment was when he was asked if the still thought the presidency was the greatest job in the world, and would he recommend it to others? He deftly responded,"....YES, and NO." The repartee he had with the media was at that time unparalleled in American history, and presidents since then have used his example as a gold standard.

Humor in politics is something of a lost art in recent years.  Many people in the political world understand the art of humor, but our political system today too often emphasizes negativity as a way to engage the public. Perhaps the diversification of political media from the growth of partisan news coverage, Twitter, Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh and so forth means attempting humor in politics has become a strategic error.

But I believe, as the American public's views of politics and politicians has dipped to an all-time low, people want a positive leadership with positive messaging that humor can help deliver.  Certainly the great examples of the successful presidencies of Lincoln, FDR, Reagan and Kennedy prove that one can be funny and witty and still be a great leader. More contemporary political leaders like Bob Dole, Alan Simpson and Barney Frank illustrate that wit can help make a successful senator or congressman as well.  No doubt there are many, many reasons for the enduring nature of the Kennedy legacy, but his authentic wit and humor are among the strongest.

Glickman served as secretary of agriculture in the Clinton Administration.  He is vice president of the Aspen Institute and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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