Was John F. Kennedy the last honest politician?
Yes, that's an intentionally provocative framing of the question, but given recent events, the idea warrants a deeper examination.
In stumping for the health care reform bill that bears his name, President Obama promised dozens of audiences (37 in all in the past four years) that "if you like your plan, you can keep it." But he knew that over half of those who had purchased insurance on the individual market would lose their plans during implementation of his health care reform bill, and his administration assumed that, given the typical churn in the individual market, people would not notice the difference.
House Speaker John Boehner told two undocumented teenage girls that he’s "trying to find some way" to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. Yet, with a sufficient number of Republicans having publicly declared their support for such a bill, everyone in the Capitol knows that the votes are there to pass it if Boehner would simply agree to bring it to the floor despite it lacking the support of a majority of Republican legislators.
And Toronto Mayor Rob Ford recently claimed that he was prepared to admit smoking crack cocaine well before his ultimate admission; it's just that reporters were asking him the wrong question.
Surely two of our nation’s most powerful leaders would be aghast at their inclusion in a category with the buffoonish Rob Ford. But there is a common thread: a lack of public candor by leaders who feared that transparency would damage them politically. Faced with similar challenges 50 years ago, our nation’s young president could not have responded more differently.
President Kennedy’s stunning candor following the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco seems quaint now that spinning, exaggerating, parsing words, and shading truths have become accepted parts of our nation’s political dialogue. But when leaders make mistakes, be they in the public or private sector, anything less than complete candor can empower rivals, the press, or, worst of all, law enforcement, to seize on a false statement, turning a speed bump into a full-blown scandal. As President Nixon taught us, the cover-up is almost always worse than the crime; it is a lesson I learned all too well.
There are many memorable photographs of former President Bill Clinton, but perhaps the most memorable is the one of a 16 year-old Clinton representing Arkansas at Boys Nation, beaming while shaking President Kennedy’s hand. Kennedy, of course, was Clinton’s role model. But there was one area in which, at a critical moment, Clinton departed from Kennedy’s playbook: crisis management.
The Bay of Pigs debacle was an unsuccessful 1961 invasion of Cuba by a CIA-trained paramilitary group who hoped to overthrow Castro’s government, which routed them in three days. The media clamored for Kennedy to address the events, which he did with clarity and candor. First, he acknowledged the United States’ role in the coup, and admitted the coup’s failure: "The news has grown worse instead of better." Kennedy confessed surprise and disappointment in the outcome, showing a vulnerability rare among leaders as he described "useful lessons" from the "sobering episode." He pledged to "re-examine and reorient our forces of all kinds." Last, he fully he accepted responsibility.
There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan . . . further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I'm the responsible officer of the Government.
He did not blame the CIA for insufficient planning, or blame his national security team for offering poor information or guidance, or blame anyone for anything at all.
A generation later, President Clinton was confronted with his own crisis, one of somewhat less magnitude on the world stage, but which ultimately threatened his presidency and became, regrettably, a permanent blemish on his record. It involved neither the loss of life nor grand geopolitical strategy, but rather a stained blue dress. And instead of speaking candidly to the American people and admitting his mistake, he parsed words, dissembled, and gambled that stonewalling would work. It would not. Clinton would become one of just two U.S. Presidents to be impeached by the House of Representatives. And despite his otherwise solid performance in office as he presided over a booming economy and buoyant approval ratings to this day, he would never quite regain the trust of the legislators or aides—or the American public—to whom he swore that he did not have sexual relations with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
Unfortunately, recent events involving Mayor Ford, Speaker Boehner, and President Obama suggest that our leaders are taking their crisis-management lessons not from President Kennedy but from President Clinton. And the consequent parsing, shading, and evasion of full responsibility does not serve the nation well as we suffer from a historic lack of trust in our major institutions.
—Jeff Smith is assistant professor of politics and advocacy at The New School’s urban policy graduate program and is a former Missouri state senator. He coauthored The Recovering Politician’s Twelve-Step Guide to Crisis Management, and will publish a book on prison reform in late 2014 with St. Martin’s Press.