“The Presidency in 1960” (Remarks at the National Press Club)

Where is the Constitution in Senator Kennedy’s conception of the presidency? Where is Congress? Does Kennedy believe that the modern presidency is somehow different from the constitutional presidency? Is Kennedy primarily concerned with presidential temperament or with a theory of power?
Are there any differences between what Theodore Roosevelt described as having guided his presidency (Constitutional Government in the United States (1908)) and what Kennedy promises will guide his?

In this speech at the National Press Club delivered in January 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy outlines his view of the proper role of the modern presidency. But he characterizes this modern presidency by historical examples, citing several presidents as models and rejecting others. Moreover, Kennedy offers a view of the constitutional order that ranks the presidency as the most important of the three departments.

Kennedy’s examples are wide-ranging, but readers should review Letter to Albert G. Hodges (1864) and On the Source of Executive Power (1916) to appreciate Kennedy’s remarks. Readers might also ask how Madison’s (Helvidius-Pacificus Debate (1793)) or Taft’s views (On the Source of Executive Power (1916)) might differ.

—Jeremy D. Bailey

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (Pre-Presidential Papers, Senate Files, Speeches and the Press, Speech Files, 1953–1960: National Press Club, Washington, D.C., 18 January 1960), JFKSEN-0905-022; https://goo.gl/qNdLcP.

The modern Presidential campaign covers every issue in and out of the platform from cranberries to Creation. But the public is rarely alerted to a candidate’s views about which all the rest turn. That central issue – and the point of my comments this noon – is not the farm problem or defense of India. It is the Presidency itself.

Of course, a candidate’s views on specific policies are important – but Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft shared policy views with entirely different results in the White House. Of course, it is important to elect a good man with good intentions – but Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding were both good men of good intentions – so were [both] Lincoln and Buchanan[1] – but there is a Lincoln Room in the White House, and no Buchanan Room.

The history of this nation – its brightest and its bleakest pages – has been written largely in terms of the different views our Presidents have had of the Presidency itself. This history ought to tell us that the American people in 1960 have an imperative right to know what any man bidding for the Presidency thinks about the place he is bidding for – whether he is aware of and willing to use the powerful resources of that office – whether his model will be Taft – or Roosevelt – Wilson – or Harding.

Not since the days of Woodrow Wilson has any candidate spoken on the Presidency itself before the votes have been irrevocably cast. Let us hope that the 1960 campaign, in addition to discussing the familiar issues where our positions too often blur, will also talk about the Presidency itself – as an instrument for dealing with those issues – as an office with varying roles, powers and limitations.

During the past eight years, we have seen one concept of the Presidency at work. Our needs and hopes have been eloquently stated – but the initiative and follow-through have too often been left to others. And too often his own objectives have been lost by the President’s failure to override objections from within his own party, in the Congress or even in his Cabinet.

The American people in 1952 and 1956 may well have preferred this detached, limited concept of the Presidency after twenty years of fast-moving, creative Presidential rule. Perhaps historians will regard this as necessarily one of these frequent periods of consolidation, a time to draw breath, to recoup our national energy. To quote the State of the Union Message: “No Congress . . . on surveying the State of the Nation, has met with a more pleasing prospect than that which appears at the present time.” Unfortunately this is not Mr. Eisenhower’s last message to the Congress, but Calvin Coolidge’s. He followed to the White house Mr. Harding, whose “sponsor” declared very frankly that the times did not demand a first-rate President. If true, the times and the man met.

But the question is what do the times – and the people – demand for the next four years in the White House? They demand a vigorous proponent of the national interest—not a passive broker for conflicting private interests. They demand a man capable of acting as the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Alliance, not merely a bookkeeper who feels that his work is done when the numbers on the balance sheet come out even. They demand that he be the head of a responsible party, not rise so far above politics as to be invisible – a man who will formulate and fight for legislative policies, not be a casual bystander to the legislative process.

Today a restricted concept of the Presidency is not enough. For beneath today’s surface gloss of peace and prosperity are increasingly dangerous, unsolved, long-postponed [problems] – problems that will inevitably explode to the surface during the next four years of the next administration – the growing missile gap, the rise of Communist China, the despair of the underdeveloped nations, the explosive situations in Berlin and in the Formosa Straits, the deterioration of NATO, the lack of an arms control agreement, and all the domestic problems of our farms, cities and schools.

This Administration has not faced up to these and other problems. Much has been said – but I am reminded of the old Chinese proverb: “There is a great deal of noise on the stairs but nobody comes into the room.”

The President’s State of the Union Message reminded me of the exhortation from King Lear that goes: “I will do such things . . . what they are I know not . . . but they shall be the wonders of the earth.”[2]

In the decade that lies ahead – in the challenging, revolutionary sixties – the American Presidency will demand more than ringing manifestoes issued from the rear of the battle. It will demand that the President place himself in the very thick of the fight, that he care passionately about the fates of the people he leads, that he be willing to serve them at the risk of incurring their momentary displeasure.