The Globe and Mail’s July 21, 1969 front page was intoxicating. Bold, green, three inch high print announced MAN ON MOON. It reported 35,000 people breathlessly glued to a big TV screen in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square who cheered at 10:56 pm when Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module. Mayor Dennison delivered a brief speech calling it, “the greatest day in human history.” He may have been right. What he couldn’t know, and the Globe missed, were the important lessons contained on that front page.
The moon adventure was the culmination of an effort begun by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. He had just returned from meetings with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. While Kennedy negotiated, Khrushchev had hectored. Kennedy became convinced that the Cold War was about to turn hot.
Upon his return he called for a special meeting of Congress and asked for a whopping $1.6 billion increase for military aid for allies and $60 million to restructure his military. He called for a tripling of civil defence spending to help Americans build bomb shelters for a nuclear holocaust that, he warned, was a real possibility. The president also said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” His popularity surged.
It was daring and presumptuous. The Soviets were far ahead of the United States in space exploration. But that day and later Kennedy couched the courageous new effort in soaring rhetoric that appealed to America’s inspiring exceptionality and Cold War fears. When cheers arose from public squares and living rooms only seven years later and everyone instinctively looked up, it was the culmination of Kennedy’s dream for the world and challenge to America.
Kennedy had not micromanaged his NASA team. He set the vision and got out of the way. He did not badger them regarding tactics or berate them over temporary failures. He gave them the money they needed then trusted them to act as the professionals they were. His vision and leadership spurred the team and survived his death.
The Globe and Mail’s July 21 front page declaring his vision’s realization did not mention President Kennedy. However, a smaller headline at the bottom noted, “Woman dies in crash, police seek to charge Kennedy.” The story explained that Senator Edward Kennedy, the president’s brother, would be prosecuted for leaving the scene of an accident.
On July 18, with the Apollo astronauts approaching the moon and their rendezvous with infamy, Kennedy had attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island for six women and two men who had worked on his brother Bobby’s doomed 1968 presidential campaign. While driving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel, he took a wrong turn, then missed a slight curve on an unlit road and drove over a bridge and into eight feet of water.
Kennedy managed to escape the submerged car and later spoke of diving “seven or eight times” but failing to free Kopechne. He walked back to the party and was driven home. That night he consulted with advisors and then, eight hours after the accident, called police. A coroner reported that an air pocket probably allowed Kopenchne to survive for three or four hours before drowning. A quicker call for help, he concluded, would have saved her life.
Car being pulled from river. Photo: www. www.latimes.com
In the 1990s, Edward Kennedy would become the “Lion of the Senate,” guardian of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and model for bi-partisanship. However, when he ran for his party’s nomination for president against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, many saw not a lion but liar and not a politician but playboy. Chappaquiddick appeared to reflect a belief that ethics, morality, and the law applied only to others. Voters punished his conceit by withholding support.
It was all there on the Globe and Mail’s front page, 46 years ago: the legacy of intrepid leadership by one brother and the price of hubris by another. They are leadership lessons of the moon. On this anniversary we are left to ponder questions inadvertently posed by the Globe that day regarding the difference between bold audacity and stupid risk, daring vision and manipulative reaction, planning and plotting, and between big decisions that positively affect millions and big decisions disguised as little ones that are always pregnant with unintended consequences. The front page’s historical coincidence urges us to wonder if, in their wisdom, people still reward leaders of selfless vision or selfish arrogance.
President Kennedy’s leadership lessons from the moon offer even more profound lessons for those willing to learn.
If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others on Facebook or your social media of choice.