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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 Documents 17, 22, and 22 to appreciate Kennedy’s remarks. Readers might also ask how Madison’s (Helvidius-Pacificus Debate) or Taft’s views (On the Source of Executive Power) might differ.
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 – 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.”
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.
As Chief Executive
Whatever the political affiliation of our next President, whatever his views may be on all the issues and problems that rush in upon us, he must above all be the Chief Executive in every sense of the word. He must be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office – all that are specified and some that are not. He must master complex problems as well as receive one-page memoranda. He must originate action as well as study groups. He must reopen the channels of communication between the world of thought and the seat of power.
Ulysses Grant considered the President “a purely administrative officer.” If he administered the government departments efficiently, delegated his functions smoothly, and performed his ceremonies of state with decorum and grace, no more was to be expected of him. But that is not the place the Presidency was meant to have in American life. The President is alone, at the top – the loneliest job there is, as Harry Truman has said.
If there is destructive dissension among the services, he alone can step in and straighten it out – instead of waiting for unanimity. If administrative agencies are not carrying out their mandate – if a brushfire threatens some part of the globe – he alone can act, without waiting for the Congress. If his farm program fails, he alone deserves the blame, not his Secretary of Agriculture.
“The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can.” So wrote Professor Woodrow Wilson. But President Woodrow Wilson discovered that to be a big man in the White house inevitably brings cries of dictatorship. So did Lincoln and Jackson and the two Roosevelts. And so may the next occupant of that office, if he is the man the times demand. But how much better it would be, in the turbulent sixties, to have a Roosevelt or a Wilson than to have another James Buchanan, cringing in the White House, afraid to move.
Nor can we afford a Chief Executive who is praised primarily for what he did not do, the disasters he prevented, the bills he vetoed – a President wishing his subordinates would produce more missiles or build more schools. We will need instead what the Constitution envisioned: a Chief Executive who is the vital center of action in our whole scheme of government.
As Legislative Leader
This includes the legislative process as well. The President cannot afford – for the sake of the office as well as the nation – to be another Warren G. Harding, described by one backer as a man who “would, when elected, sign whatever bill the Senate sent him – and not send bills for the Senate to pass.” Rather he must know when to lead the Congress, when to consult it and when he should act alone.
Having served fourteen years in the Legislative Branch, I would not look with favor upon its domination by the Executive. Under our government of “power as the rival of power,” to use Hamilton’s phrase, Congress must not surrender its responsibilities. But neither should it dominate. However large its share in the formulation of domestic programs, it is the President alone who must make the major decisions of our foreign policy. That is what the Constitution wisely commands. And even domestically, the President must initiate policies and devise laws to meet the needs of the nation. And he must be prepared to use all the resources of his office to ensure the enactment of that legislation – even when conflict is the result.
By the end of his term, Theodore Roosevelt was not popular in the Congress – particularly when he criticized an amendment to the Treasury appropriation which forbade the use of Secret Servicemen to investigate Congressmen! And the feeling was mutual – Roosevelt saying: “I do not much admire the Senate, because it is such a helpless body when efficient work is to be done.” And Woodrow Wilson was even more bitter after his frustrating quarrels – asked if he might run for the Senate in 1920, he replied: “Outside of the United States, the Senate does not amount to a damn. And inside the United States, the Senate is mostly despised. They haven’t had a thought down there in 50 years.”
But, however bitter their farewells, the facts of the matter are that Roosevelt and Wilson did get things done – not only through their executive powers, but through the Congress as well. Calvin Coolidge, on the other hand, departed Washington with the cheers of Congress still ringing in his ears. But when his World Court bill was under fire on Capitol hill, he sent no messages, gave no encouragement to the bill’s leaders and paid little or no attention to the whole proceeding – and the cause of world justice was set back.
To be sure, Coolidge had held the usual White House breakfasts with Congressional leaders – but they were aimed, as he himself said, at “good fellowship,” not a discussion of “public business.” And at his press conferences, according to press historians, where he preferred to talk about the local flower show and its exhibits, reporters who finally extracted from him a single sentence – “I’m against that bill” – would rush to file tongue-in-cheek dispatches, proclaiming that: “President Coolidge, in a fighting mood, today served notice on Congress that he intended to combat, with all the resources at his command, the pending bill . . . .”
But in the coming years, we will need a real fighting mood in the White House – a man who will not retreat in the face of pressure from his Congressional leaders – who will not let down those supporting his views on the floor. Divided government over the past six years has only been further confused by this lack of legislative leadership. To restore it next year will help restore purpose to both the Presidency and the Congress.
As Party Leader
The facts of the matter are that legislative leadership is not possible without party leadership, in the most political sense – and Mr. Eisenhower prefers to stay above politics (although a weekly news magazine last fall reported the startling news, and I quote, that “President Eisenhower is emerging as a major political figure”). When asked, early in his first term, how he like the “game of politics”, he replied with a frown that his questioner was using a derogatory phase: “Being President”, he said, “is a very great experience. . . . But the word ‘politics’ . . . I have no great liking for that.”
But no President, it seems to me, can escape politics. He has not only been chosen by the nation – he has been chosen by his party. And if he insists that he is “President of all the people” and should therefore offend none of them – if he blurs the issues and differences between the parties – if he neglects the party machinery and avoids his party’s leadership – then he has not only weakened the political party as an instrument of the democratic process – he has dealt a blow to the Democratic process itself.
I prefer the example of Abe Lincoln, who loved politics with the passion of a born practitioner. For example, he waited up all night in 1863 to get the crucial returns on the Ohio Governorship. When the Unionist Candidate was elected, Lincoln wired: “Glory to God in the highest! Ohio has saved the nation!”
As a Moral Leader
But the White House is not only the center of political leadership. It must be the center of moral leadership – a “bully pulpit,” as Theodore Roosevelt described it. For only the President represents the national interest. And upon him alone converge all the needs and aspirations of all parts of the country, all departments of the government, all nations of the world.
It is not enough merely to represent prevailing sentiment – to follow McKinley’s practice, as described by Joe Cannon, of “keeping his ear so close to the ground he got it full of grasshoppers.” We will need in the sixties a President who is willing and able to summon his national constituency to its finest hour – to alert the people to our dangers and our opportunities – demand of them the sacrifices that will be necessary. Despite the increasing evidence of a lost national purpose and a soft national will, F.D.R’s words in his First Inaugural still ring true: “In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”
Roosevelt fulfilled the role of moral leadership. So did Wilson and Lincoln, Truman and Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt. They led the people as well as the government – they fought for great ideals as well as bills. And the time has come to demand that kind of leadership again.
And so, as this vital campaign begins, let us discuss the issues the next President will face – but let us also discuss the powers and tools with which he must face them. For he must endow that office with extraordinary strength and vision. He must act in the image of Abraham Lincoln summoning his war-time Cabinet to a meeting on the Emancipation Proclamation. That Cabinet had been carefully chosen to please and reflect many elements in the country. But “I have gathered you together,” Lincoln said, “to hear what I have written down. I do not wish your advice about the main matter – that I have determined for myself.”
And later, when he went to sign it after several hours of exhausting handshaking that had left his arm weak, he said to those present: “If my name goes down in history, it will be for this act. My whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign this Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say: ‘He hesitated.’”
But Lincoln’s hand did not tremble. He did not hesitate. He did not equivocate. For he was the President of the United States.
It is in this spirit that we must go forth in the coming months and years.
- 1. James Buchanan (1791-1868) was fifteenth president of the United States. He is normally ranked among the least effective presidents because of his failure to deal with secession.
- 2. See King Lear, Act II, scene iv, line 280.
- 3. Woodrow Wilson makes this comment in Constitutional Government (Document 21), in a passage not included in this volume. Robert Jackson also quotes this passage in Youngstown (Document 31).