An Election Really Rigged – Part One

We Canadians are a smug lot. For the last while, we’ve pressed our noses to the window on our southern border and been shocked and chagrined by the gong show masquerading as a presidential election. We’ve been stunned by, among other things, all the talk of rigged elections and secret shenanigans. Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s consider a Canadian election that was truly rigged. First, let’s see how the Americans helped topple the Canadian government.

President John F. Kennedy hated Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Their political difference would have put them at odds even if they had gotten along famously. The final straw in the feisty fight was Kennedy’s rage over Diefenbaker’s failure to offer enthusiastic and unreserved support during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy needed the Canadian government changed. He usually got what he wanted.

Raffi final

Photo:Toronto Star

Strike One: Two and a half months after the Cuban crisis ended and the world returned to the gritted-teeth peace, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Norstad ended his career with a tour of alliance capitals. On January 3, 1963, he arrived in Ottawa. Resplendent in his medal-bedecked uniform, Norstad made a brief statement and then, in response to reporters’ questions, suggested that Canada’s prime minister was a liar. He had been lying, the general said, about a number of things including the need for Canadian troops in Europe to have American nuclear weapons.

Many newspapers and people had already turned on Diefenbaker but Norstad’s stunning declaration turned more. A few days after igniting the firestorm, Kennedy welcomed Norstad to the White House, pinned a Distinguished Service Medal on his chest, and praised him for displaying “great skill” and “sensitivity” in his diplomacy and especially for having, “…in a unique way held the confidence of our allies in Europe and, of course, our partner to the north, Canada.”

Strike Two: Amid withering attacks from all sides, Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons to explain and defend his government’s nuclear policy. He concluded that his government’s policies would always reflect Canadian interests and not those of “people from outside the country” who cared only for their own national interests.

The speech was a grand performance but confused more than clarified. It intensified questions about Diefenbaker’s leadership in the media and among his cabinet and caucus. The Americans then poured oil on the gathering flames. The American ambassador sped a message to the State Department in which he took specific exception to nearly every point Diefenbaker had made. The letter was reworked by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and then Secretary of State Dean Rusk took it to the president. Kennedy agreed to the letter’s release saying, “We can’t let these fellows get away with this.”

Late in the afternoon of January 30, the State Department press release was given to Canadian reporters in Washington. It was astonishing. Point by point, it explained how Diefenbaker had misrepresented a range of issues and facts. Only three weeks after General Norstad had told the Canadian people that Diefenbaker was being disingenuous regarding nuclear weapons, Kennedy’s State Department, even more bluntly, had called their prime minister a liar.

In the House of Commons Diefenbaker thundered: “[Canada] will not be pushed around or accept external domination or interference in the making of its decisions. Canada is determined to remain a firm ally, but that does not mean she should be a satellite.” The fury of indignation led by media on both sides of the border forced Secretary of State Rusk to respond. Far from apologizing, he said that after hearing Diefenbaker’s speech the Kennedy administration was justified in laying out the facts. News of Rusk’s statement appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was reprinted in papers across Canada. Yet another high-ranking American, the third in three weeks, had called the Canadian prime minister a liar.

Kennedy called his special advisor George Ball twice that night to say that he understood the effects of his government’s action in Canada but that Diefenbaker deserved it. Ball confirmed that as a result of their interventions the Diefenbaker government could fall. Kennedy doubled down saying, “We should feed some…up there that Diefenbaker’s in trouble. We knew that he has always been running against us so that it’s very important.”

 Strike Three:  The growing tension brought all that had been tearing the Diefenbaker cabinet asunder to the fore. In an unprecedented shouting match meeting at the prime minister’s residence, the cabinet split and the defense minister resigned. Shortly afterward, Rusk appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Canadian Affairs that had been called to investigate the State Department’s intervention into Canadian domestic political. Revealing that he obviously had an Ottawa mole, Rusk said that six or seven Canadian cabinet ministers were splitting from the prime minister. He then bluntly reiterated everything the State Department memo had said. For those keeping score, it was the fourth time a senior Kennedy administration official had publicly called Diefenbaker a liar.

Ottawa fell into chaos. There were bizarre late night meetings, hushed hallway conversations, private deal making, and public back stabbings. On the evening of Tuesday, February 5, for only the second time in Canadian history, a government was defeated on a vote on non-confidence. Diefenbaker visited the Governor General and the election was set for April 8.

The news sparked laughter and celebration at the White House. The American ambassador telegrammed the State Department to gloat about America’s role in having brought down Diefenbaker: “In effect, we have now forced the issue and the outcome depends on [the] basic common sense of Canadian electorate… we see grounds for optimism that over the long run this exercise will prove to have been highly beneficial and will substantially advance our interests.” Kennedy said nothing publicly about his administration’s role in the Canadian government’s fall. However, McGeorge Bundy later admitted to President Johnson, “I might add that I myself have been sensitive to the need for being extra polite to the Canadians ever since George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker Government by one incautious press release.”

Let us not be naive. Politics is tough. Politicians will do things to advance their careers, political appointees will do things to support their bosses, and political leaders will do things to advance their agendas. Occasionally that leads one government to overthrow another with a violent revolution or coup. Sometimes, such as in Canada in 1963, it leads to a nudge through shaping perceptions and changing course.

Kennedy’s efforts in helping to overthrow the Canadian government would not have been worth it, of course, unless Lester Pearson and his Liberals won the ensuing election. The president would not leave that to chance. But that is for part two.

I have been away from my Monday blog for a while to complete my next book but I’m back. Part two of this story will appear next week with more in the weeks that follow. For more on Kennedy and Canada you could check out Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front which is available online and at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Charisma in the Capital: Trudeau or Kennedy?

A charismatic, handsome, photogenic leader gobsmacked a capital, turned the media into cheerleaders, and left the people agog. We saw it last week and we’ve seen it before with its lessons as clear as a radiant smile.

Trudeau in Washington

Trudeau, with Obama, in Washington (Photo: blogs.wsj.com) 

On a slate gray afternoon, in May 1961, Air Force One touched down at Ottawa’s Uplands airport. Two thousand guests rose from their bleacher seats inside the massive hangar as 500 children hooted and waved little American and Canadian flags. Applause erupted as the plane’s big white door yawned open to reveal President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline.

Tanned from a recent Florida vacation, they smiled, waved, and descended the stairs. They moved slowly, shook hands with the governor general, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, and their wives, and then strolled along the red carpet into the building. Coronation trumpets blared a royal welcome. The Honour Guard was inspected, an RCMP band played the American national anthem, and outside, a twenty-one-gun salute pierced the breeze.

In his welcoming speech, Diefenbaker said some nice things then self-deprecatingly apologized before offering a few words of what he called “fractured French.” Kennedy responded by saying of Canadian-American relations: “Together we have worked in peace, together we have worked in war and now in this long twilight era that is neither peace nor war we must stand together even more firmly than before.” All was going well but then, as he had at the White House press conference before Diefenbaker’s February trip to Washington, Kennedy mispronounced the prime minister’s name—“Deefunbawker.” Diefenbaker winced.

Jacqueline Kennedy was fluently bilingual. She had helped her husband memorize a few lines in passable French. Rather than simply say what he had practised, however, Kennedy admitted that he did not speak the language and then said, “I am somewhat encouraged to say a few words in French, having heard your Prime Minister.” The crowd laughed. The thin-skinned Diefenbaker again felt insulted.

As the Kennedys walked toward the waiting motorcade, the clouds parted as if on cue and bathed them in sunshine. Throngs of cheering people waved from the sidewalks as Kennedy approached the city. The cars were forced to slow several times as admirers surged forward with many holding children on their shoulders. Fifty thousand normally staid and steady people of Ottawa welcomed Kennedy to their city like teenage girls might greet Elvis.

The reception was not unexpected. Kennedy’s popularity was soaring as high Canada as it was in the United States. Kennedy knew policy and actions mattered but believed that his personal popularity was an important key to advancing his agenda. He understood his celebrity and took pains to enhance it with films of him playing touch football and photographs of his photogenic family. Every week viewers watched a riveting display of his prodigious memory, impressive intelligence, clear understanding of complex issues, and razor sharp wit in a live, televised news conference. He told speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “We couldn’t survive without TV.”

The next morning, after enjoying a state dinner at the governor general’s mansion the night before, Kennedy was cheered by a large crowd gathered at the Canadian War Memorial. The brief ceremony began with the American national anthem. Kennedy inspected a one-hundred-man Honour Guard, laid a wreath, and then stood for “O Canada” and “God Save the Queen.” With people waving and cheering, he and Diefenbaker walked slowly across Wellington Street toward the Parliament Buildings’ Gothic splendour.

Kennedy in Ottawa..

Kennedy, with Diefenbaker, in Ottawa (Photo: ici.radio-canada.ca)

With a massive crowd impatiently waiting on the Parliament Hill lawn for another glimpse of Kennedy, the president and prime minister repaired inside where they experienced nothing but frustration. Kennedy had arrived with a shopping list of requests for policy changes but Diefenbaker declared each contrary to Canadian interests and, over and over again, said no. They agreed on nothing except their dislike for each other. The people, however, saw none of the private machinations, only the public smiles.

President Kennedy was, and remains, a phenomenon. Born to wealth and privilege and with terrible health, he could have done anything or nothing at all. Instead, he became a war hero, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and then a Congressman, Senator, and President. The blinding light of Kennedy’s celebrity shone so brightly that its 100-watt brilliance overwhelmed Canadians and shaped their perception of their country and its leaders.

Like Macdonald, Lincoln, and Churchill, Kennedy is a standard against which Canadian leaders are measured. When Pierre Trudeau rode to power in 1968, he was complemented for the degree to which his intellectual cool and charisma reminded Canadians of Kennedy. A Trudeau biographer observed: “The mood was conditioned by nearly a decade of jealousy. Canadians had enviously watched the presidency of John Kennedy, and continued to wish for a leader like him.”

Now, Canada seems to have another Kennedy. Last week in Washington, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acted the heir of Kennedy’s charisma and celebrity. When Kennedy arrived in Ottawa and Trudeau visited Washington they had both been in office for about four and a half months. However, Kennedy went on to add gravitas and a legacy of accomplishment to his celebrity. We’ll see if Trudeau can do the same. We’ll also see whether the next president will be to Trudeau as Diefenbaker was to Kennedy; a personal thorn, ideological nemesis, and challenge to every political skill he can muster.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. The full story of JFK’s relations with Canada is told in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available at sensible book stores everywhere and online here:

https://www.amazon.ca/Cold-Fire-Kennedys-Northern-Front/dp/0345808932

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/search/?keywords=john+boyko

 

The Day JFK Visited Toronto

There was no welcoming crowd. There were no reporters. Although the 1960 presidential election was three years away, Senator John F. Kennedy had been vigorously campaigning and so he must have found his silent arrival in Toronto on that slate grey November afternoon either amusing or disconcerting.

Throughout 1957, he had been a frequent and entertaining guest on American political chat shows. His office flooded newspapers and magazines with press releases and articles he had written or at least edited. He accepted 140 speaking engagements. The herculean effort to render his already famous name even better known had spilled over the border, as these things do, and so Canadians knew of him and his ambition.

The Day JFK Visited Toronto.

John F. Kennedy (photo: historynewsnetwork.org)

Twenty female University of Toronto students certainly knew of him and were waiting. They were outside Hart House, where Kennedy was scheduled to participate in a debate. Since Hart House was opened in 1919, its lounges, library, and recreational facilities had become the university’s social and cultural hub. The impressive gothic revival building was a gift from the Massey family that had insisted on guidelines stipulating that within its stone, ivy-covered walls, Hart House would allow no studying, drinking, or women.

The first two rules were often and flagrantly broken but Margaret Brewin, Judy Graner, and Linda Silver Dranoff led a contingent hoping to end the third. They asked the Hart House warden to allow women to see the debate. When rebuffed, they gathered friends and created placards and greeted Kennedy with chants that alternated between “Hart House Unfair” and “We Want Kennedy”.

Kennedy smiled but said nothing as he was escorted through the drizzling rain and noisy protesters. Beneath its towering, dark oak-panelled ceiling the Debates Room could seat two hundred and fifty. It was packed. A scuffle interrupted introductions when a sharp-eyed guard noticed a guest’s nail polish and removed three women who had snuck in disguised as men. With the women locked out, the men inside prepared to argue: “Has the United States failed in its responsibilities as a world leader?” Kennedy was given leave to present remarks from the floor in support of the team opposing the resolution.

Reading from a prepared text, he offered that Americans did not enjoy immunity from foreign policy mistakes but that the difference between statesmanship and politics is often a choice between two blunders. He expressed concern regarding the degree to which public opinion sometimes dictated sound public policy and admitted that the United States had misplayed some recent challenges. Regardless of these and other errors, he argued, American foreign policy rested on sound principles and his country remained a force for good.

The Day JFK Visited Toronto

Hart House (photo: toronto.cityguide.ca)

The address was well written but poorly delivered. Kennedy read in a flat tone and seldom looked up. The student debaters tore him apart. Leading the team against him was a nineteen-year-old second-year student named Stephen Lewis. As a member of the four-man U of T debate team, he had competed at various Canadian and American universities and won accolades, including the best speaker award at a recent international competition. Lewis argued that the United States consistently acted in ways that violated the tenets of its Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He accused America of trying to be, “policeman, baby-sitter and bank to the world.” The audience offered good-natured ribbing throughout the debate. Cheers rewarded good points and witty rejoinders. Kennedy seemed to enjoy himself and was heckled along with the rest.

The audience gasped in disbelief when adjudicators scored the debate 204 to 194 and declared Kennedy’s side victorious. Afterwards, at a participants’ reception, Lewis and others spoke with Senator Kennedy and expressed confusion as to why a Democrat such as he would defend the hawkish policies of the current Republican administration. Kennedy startled them by confessing that he was a Democrat only because he was from Massachusetts. He agreed with the suggestion that if he were from Maine, he would probably be a Republican.

Kennedy was not through raising eyebrows. When leaving Hart House, a reporter asked his opinion of the women’s loud but polite demonstration. He smiled and said, “I personally rather approve of keeping women out of these places…It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere.”

Although his side won, Kennedy had impressed few with his speech, fewer with his confession of political opportunism, and fewer still with his flippant dismissal of women and the concept of gender equality. His brief meeting with a small group of the protesting women the next morning changed no minds. Kennedy’s Toronto flop was surprising because by 1957 he had become quite adept at handling gatherings that demanded a blend of political chops and charm.

The next time Kennedy visited Canada it would be a president. In pursuit of his Cold War goals he would ask Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to meld Canadian policies with his own. Diefenbaker’s response offered Kennedy an even rougher reception than he had received three years before on that chilly November evening in Toronto. Diefenbaker wanted Canada to be more sovereign. Kennedy wanted a satellite. And there it began.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. The above is among many stories found in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front. Published on February 2, 2016, it is available at bookstores everywhere, Amazon, Barnes and Noble,, and at Chapters Indigo right here:

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/cold-fire-kennedys-northern-front/9780345808936-item.html

The Power of Graceful Words and Cogent Arguments

It was a word salad. Ms. Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump’s candidacy last week did something few could imagine. It outdid even her past performances in presenting a rambling exhortation as bereft of grammar and sentence structure as it was a cogent argument. She had valid points to make but even Mr. Trump appeared embarrassed at her inability to make them.

Plenty of people laughed. Tina Fey revved up her spot-on impersonation for Saturday Night Live. Others were outraged at the depths to which political discourse has sunk and by the fact that her speech garnered applause at the time and, from the predictable quarters, praise afterwards. I, however, was sad.

I was sad for all those young people with good teachers who are learning the power and beauty of the spoken word. In classrooms across North America, good teachers are encouraging an appreciation for poetry, Shakespeare, and stirring speeches. Students are learning that the more they read, the better they can write, and the better they write, the deeper they are encouraged to think. They are learning that to be articulate is a good thing. And yet, there was Ms. Palin addressing a serious matter, the presidency, with profane and made up words more akin to a drunken karaoke rap than reasoned prose.

I was also sad for students learning the precision of a well-defined argument. They are being taught to dismiss false dichotomies that present either/or options that don’t really exist. Students are learning to begin the evaluation of an argument by exploring its premise and to be unfooled by straw men foisted as false foils. If nothing else, they are learning that arguments must at least be arguments, that is, they must state a point of view and defend it with demonstrably valid evidence. They learn that truth matters and that one can have one’s own opinion but not one’s own facts. And yet, there was Ms. Palin presenting not an argument as to why Mr. Trump should be president with but, rather, nonsensical assertions, jumbled phrases, insults, non-sequiturs, and even goofy rhymes.

If you missed it, all twenty minutes, here is part of what Ms. Palin had to say:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CubzfKS5yQk

Let’s pause for a moment to consider two examples that demonstrate the way things used to be and can and should still be today. First, in about two minutes Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address stated the reason for the gathering, the value of the sacrifice of those lost in the recent battle, established the Civil War’s global and moral purpose, and affirmed the legitimacy of the fight. And he did it all in words he wrote himself and with the grace of a poet.

Take a moment to read what Lincoln said that afternoon in Pennsylvania with consideration for the value of marrying diction and argument.

http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/gettyb.asp

There is another example among many that could be chosen. On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was running for President. A crowd in the predominately Black section of Indianapolis had been waiting for a long while and was growing restless. It was dark. Just as he was ascending the stairs to speak, Kennedy was told that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. His handlers ordered him back to the car. He refused.

Instead, Kennedy looked into the sea of Black faces and asked them to lower their campaign signs. This would not be about his campaign. He said that their hero and inspirational leader had been killed and that a White man had done it. There were gasps. But Kennedy went on. He gently interpreted the murder in a personal context and then as a national, existential challenge. He quoted several lines from the Greek poet Aeschylus. That’s right, a man running for president extemporaneously quoted a Greek poet.

Value of Graceful Words and Cogent Arguments

(Photo: http://www.peacebuttons.info)

In cities across America that night there were riots in Black neighbourhoods with grief expressed as rage. That is, in every major city except one: Indianapolis.

Allow yourself the gift to be moved by Robert Kennedy and the power of elegant, graceful  words and a genuine, cogent argument:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCrx_u3825g

I refuse to believe that Ms. Palin’s ramblings and Mr. Trump’s rants are cause for despair. It is just as I refused to be disheartened when in the recent Canadian election the prime minister embarrassed himself and disgraced the office by abandoning reasoned arguments to instead, day after day, present a sophomoric, faux game show complete with buzzers and bells.

Palin, Trump, Harper, and for that matter Mr. Cruz and Mr. Sanders, have their audiences and I think I understand them. They are angry. They are angry that the rules they have followed and thought they understood are changing. The bad guys have been winning on Baghdad’s Main Street and New York’s Wall Street. They are angry that the elite, donor class sold them on voting against their interests to support people, policies, and programs that have widened gulfs and strangled mobility. Their anger is palpable. Their anger is justified.

Unjustified, however, is meeting anger with bombast. Insults are not arguments. Beliefs are not policies. Prejudices are not facts. Biases are not opinions. We deserve better. All of us deserve better, even, or perhaps especially those angry folks attracted to Mr. Trump on one side and Mr. Sanders on the other.

Leaders and those who seek to lead should elevate and not stoop. They should inspire and not conspire. They should speak not to our inner demons but, as Lincoln called them, our better angels. And they should present themselves in ways that encourage calm reason over empty passion and articulate debate rather than spewed slogans. Like Kennedy, they should cool the embers of justifiable anger rather than stoke infernos. Picture Palin or Trump in Indianapolis that night.

For the sake of the children learning to speak, write, and present persuasive arguments as part of their becoming engaged citizens and whose world will be shaped by our decisions, let us demand more. Let us refuse to support those who’s jumbled words and absent arguments suggest we settle for less.

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Five Reasons Why JFK Still Matters

On a bright and frigid afternoon fifty-five years ago, John F. Kennedy became America’s 35th president. It was an exciting day. The unabating flood of articles, books, and movies suggest that his life and leadership continues to enthral. Let’s consider why he still matters by pondering questions he still poses.

5 Reasons Why JFK Still Matters

(Photo: mauialmanac.com)

Leadership and Wealth: The one percent who own and influence so much is under attack. In Canada’s recent election, Justin Trudeau’s opponents argued that his inherited wealth precluded him from understanding and helping working- and middle-class Canadians. Hillary Clinton is taking similar hits.

Kennedy grew up in mansions and was chauffeured to school in his father’s Rolls Royce. He could have done anything or nothing at all. Instead, he worked tirelessly to improve the lot of those toiling in shops, fields, and factories. He implemented a middle class tax cut, a higher minimum wage, and proposed universal health care. Does money kill compassion?

Government Power: Kennedy was more practical than liberal and more pragmatic than conservative. He decried ideological blindness that seeks victory without compromise while trying to tip the balance of power between government and business too far in one direction. He believed government was a positive societal force, essential for the collective good.

Because government cannot and should not do everything, should it do nothing? Does a government’s inability to completely solve a problem invite rejection of first steps?

Celebrity: Kennedy did not invent the celebrity politician but he was the first to exploit looks, charisma, and a photogenic family in the TV age. The 1960 campaign swung when he beat the more experienced but less-media savvy Richard Nixon in TV debates. Kennedy confessed that he would not be an effective president or possibly even have become president without television.

A journalist once wrote of Canada’s 1968 “Trudeaumania” election: “Canadians had enviously watched the presidency of John Kennedy, and continued to wish for a leader like him.” Last year, Canadians watched Trudeau’s son ride a wave of Kennedyesque celebrity while Nixon-like opponents attacked his appearance and gaps in his policies and resume, all the while forgetting Kennedy’s lesson. And now Trudeau commands, Donald Trump confounds and Kevin O’Leary considers. Must our leaders now also be celebrities?

Public Privacy: Kennedy’s legacy was later tarnished by revelations of reckless sexual liaisons. He also hid serious health problems and daily drug injections that managed symptoms. The press was complicit in the secrecy and silence.

The post-Watergate media changed the relationship between public and private. Social media shattered it. Canada’s last election saw candidates humiliated and others withdraw due to social media gaffes and attacks. Many good people now avoid public service, fearing slander and privacy’s surrender. Can a flawed person be a valid candidate or good leader? Are there limits to our right to know?

Aspiration: Many recall lines from Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” or “The torch has been passed to a new generation…” In June 1963, he called for world peace based on our shared humanity. The next day he went on TV and reframed Civil Rights as a moral imperative.

We are well served by neither demagoguery nor technocratic managers masquerading as leaders. Instead, with so much and so many dividing us, Kennedy reminds us that real leaders really lead and that we need words that inspire, dreams that unite, and the positing of challenging questions and grand goals. What’s wrong with shooting for the moon?

Kennedy still matters because, in the final analysis, his enduring gift was not programs or policies but his inspirational leadership. We should consider the questions he still poses and answers he suggests. We owe it to ourselves and our children to consider his audacious exhortation that idealism is not naïve, hope is not foolish, hardship is incentive, and community can extend beyond one’s family, class, race, or even country.

This column originally appeared as an op ed in the Montreal Gazette on January 20, 2016, the 55th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it with others.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon

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.

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 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.

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, 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.

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 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.

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John F. Kennedy and My Mother’s Tears

I recall the first time I saw my mother cry. You need to understand that my mom was a tough woman, as tough as burnished leather, at least on the outside, the side she allowed most folks to see. But on this day she was sobbing. It was the afternoon of November 22, 1963. I was a middle-class Canadian kid in a brush cut just rolled home from the rigours of grade one but now standing in my living room, still and stunned at the sight of my mother, slumped into the couch, red-eyed and weeping before the flickering television.

She explained that a man had died, a good man, and that he had been shot by a crazy man. I remember that I cried too. It was not for him – I had no idea who the good man was – but for her, for her grief, and for my addled efforts to understand. Today, for the same three reasons, I cried again.

You see, the little boy grew up to be an author and this week I’m doing research at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Boston is a terrific city. On my first morning I jumped the red line to Pawk Street, that’s right, that’s what the man said. Within 200 steps of the subway stop I glommed on to a walking tour of the Freedom Trail led by a gentleman in period costume who was among the best guides I have ever experienced. It was marvelous; there were great sites and greater stories. I then watched a legalize marijuana rally in the Commons and laughed out loud when at the count of three the thousand or so folks splayed on blankets on the grass lit up their grass. I told a yellow T-shirted volunteer about Justin Trudeau’s pledge up in Canada but she didn’t care.

The dawn brought work. The Kennedy Library’s enormous, white, flat tower soars like a sail into the sky and overlooks the bay that reminds visitors of Kennedy’s love of the sea. The commissionaire found my name on the list, led me to an elevator in the back and with the turn his special key I was lifted to the fourth floor archives. For the rest of the day and the next two I time travelled to the 1960s. Tapping away on my laptop I recorded notes from box after box and file after file.

Kennedy library archives

My spot on the 4th floor.

On the afternoon of the third day I declared a break to finally see the museum. I stood with a group of women enchanted by home movie clips showing the Kennedys at play in Hyannisport. Kennedy smiled as he swung a golf club, sailed, swam, and at one point drove a gaggle of laughing, bare-chested, sun-tanned children far too fast on a bouncing golf cart. They were pictures of a family and life about which only the stone-hearted could not feel warmth. It was then on to politics. Films and artifacts depicted the nomination and then the election. No wonder people watching the debate thought he wiped the floor with Nixon. No kidding, did people really wear those goofy buttons and hats?

It was all good. I wandered with the gentle acceptance that like most museums its analysis was skimming as a stone over very deep ponds with its focus on entertainment more than education. But then I arrived at the gallery dedicated to the inauguration. The large screen with seating before it invited you to suspend belief and imagine you were there. About fifteen people were doing just that. There was a clutch of teenage boys with their big caps and big feet, three or four couples about my age, and a young man and woman whose eyes and hands betrayed either a honeymoon trip or one in the offing. I stood at the side not expecting to stay for the whole thing but I became entranced. There was Kennedy, tanned on that freezing January afternoon so long ago and speaking in that Boston twang. And here were these people, generations later sitting silent, eyes wide, many mouths agape, drinking in the idealism of his message as if cool water in a steaming desert oasis. I listened to him but watched them.

Kennedy inauguration

It was then it happened; a tear found my eye. I smiled and my lip quivered. I let it hang there and then run down my cheek, closed my eyes, and nodded. My mother has been gone for years now and I had not felt so close to her in a long while. The tear was not mine – it was hers. After all this time I think I finally understood that November afternoon.

The day Kennedy was murdered tore time. For millions of people the irreparable rending forever split the before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. As I watched the people watching him and smudged my cheek I realized that in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and polices but himself. His contribution, and the one that brought my mother to him then and the people to his museum now, was the courageous determination that idealism is not naive, hope is not silly, that acting collectively is not surrendering liberty, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, or city, or even country.

Of course Kennedy was a flawed man. The museum is silent about his hiding crippling health issues and the cocktail of drugs with which he was injected each day to carry on. It did not mention the women. He was a flawed leader. The museum ignored his ballooning the deficit to build a mammoth military and glanced over his being late in joining the march to civil rights and his having started the march to Vietnam. But that’s okay. There is no such thing as a perfect man or leader.

Now I’m back in my hotel scrunching notes into prose. When this book is published I hope that readers will understand Kennedy’s time a little better and consider the effects that his policies and personality had on Canada. What they will not know is our secret; that in the book’s writing I came to an understanding far more profound. In a city far from home, and for just a moment, I was once again my mother’s little boy.