Lessons from the Moon and the Bridge

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 in the paper that day, lessons that resonate today.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon

(Photo: thedailydigi.com)

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 a special meeting of Congress and asked for a whopping $1.6 billion increase in military aid for allies and $60 million to restructure the American military. He called for a tripling of civil defense 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 expressed 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 that night everyone instinctively looked up, it was the culmination of Kennedy’s dream for the world and challenge to America.

Kennedy did not micro-manage the NASA project. He set the vision and got out of the way. He did not badger the agency regarding tactics or berate it over temporary failures. He didn’t question the intelligence or patriotism of those who politically opposed his ambitious goal. Rather, he met with them, listened, and tried to convince them of the value of ambition. He gave NASA the money it needed then trusted the scientists and engineers to act as the professionals they were. His vision and leadership spurred the team and survived his death.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon.

(Photo: karmadecay.com)

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, Senator 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 the police. A coroner reported that an air pocket probably allowed Kopechne to survive for three or four hours before drowning. A quicker call for help, he concluded, would have saved her life.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon..

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 rule of law applied only to others. Voters punished his conceit by withholding support.

It was all there in the Globe and Mail, nearly 50 years ago this week. We have the legacy of one brother who, despite his personal flaws, understood the nature, power, and potential of leadership. He knew what it took to be an effective president. And we have the other brother who seemed, at that point, to understand only the arrogance of privilege, the hubris to believe that he was above the law, ethics, morality, and decency. They are lessons of the moon and the bridge.

And now, as we cringe through our inability to tear ourselves from the tragedy unfolding in Washington, as we watch political leaders displaying the characteristics of one Kennedy brother or the other, we wonder if the lessons of the moon and bridge have been learned.

 

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