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JFK Left Rich Legacy, Including Leadership Style, Says UNH Professor [VIDEO]

Release Date:
11/18/2013 12:00 AM

Nov. 18, 2013
Updated Nov. 22 with video

Joshua Sandman, featuresJoshua Sandman

WEST HAVEN, CONN. --- Although John F. Kennedy was in office for only 1,000 days, his legacy includes developing the groundwork that led to profound changes in how Americans live today, a University of New Haven political scientist said.

Joshua Sandman, a professor of political science who has studied Kennedy for nearly 40 years,   said Kennedy’s legacy includes:

  • his leadership style, which established a collegial model for executive office crisis management and decision making, used effectively by other presidents but not by President Barack Obama;
  • his use of the presidency, in the tradition of President Theodore Roosevelt, as a bully pulpit for his vision and agenda;
  • his political savvy, which allowed him to build coalitions for public policy change using  local, state and national political and governing institutions;
  • his drive for social and economic justice and civil rights, which permanently changed American society; and
  • his creation of the Peace Corps and the establishment of the space program.

Fifty years after President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, the Peace Corps and the space program continue to be popular, successful and well-regarded programs.

Sandman, who began studying Kennedy as a Ph.D. candidate in the late 1960s at New York University, said if Obama had studied Kennedy’s leadership and decision-making style and applied his coalition building approach, he would not be in the trouble he is in now over the Affordable Care Act, with falling approval ratings and a disenchanted public.

“Obama is five years into his presidency, and he has not absorbed the lessons that Kennedy learned three months into his presidency,” Sandman said. “Obama has  no specific individual reporting directly to him regarding progress on a matter as crucial as the healthcare program.  Further, he has not learned how to build effective political alliances and attempt to recast the political landscape, like Kennedy did.”

John F Kennedy, features John F. Kennedy

Kennedy was also personally involved in promoting and politically campaigning for his agenda with political leaders. Obama, on the other hand, has an aloof attitude and is much more “hands off,” Sandman said.

Sandman says Kennedy learned a lot from his first crisis, the Bay of Pigs. “Three months into his presidency, he learned a very hard lesson – and he never forgot that lesson,” he said.

What Kennedy learned, Sandman said, was that he needed a designated individual responsible to the president and reporting to the president on each aspect of a crisis (or any other matter or issue the president deemed significant). This trusted ally – often JFK’s brother Bobby – had only the president’s interests at heart. Also, JFK learned to use a collegial style of decision-making management that included not only the key players who were charged with the responsibility of running a department or managing an issue area but also others whom the president had trust in and who would offer fresh and intelligent perspectives, Sandman said. 

Prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy brought together representatives of various government agencies charged with addressing aspects of the operation. However, they were not worried about the president’s standing or apparently the invasion outcome but rather their own agenda and institutional power struggles, Sandman said. The result reflected badly on the president, who never allowed a similar situation to occur again.

His style of White House management, which Sandman calls collegial, can offer a prescriptive model for strategy development and decision making. It was not used by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose problems in Vietnam might have been averted had Johnson employed that approach. Presidents Reagan and Clinton more frequently used the JFK’s style, but President Carter did not, Sandman said. That omission exacerbated Carter’s overall White House problems and can help explain his general failure to have the Iranian-held American hostages freed and the failure of the hostage rescue mission. Some believe the Iranian hostage problem contributed to Carter’s failing to win reelection.

Kennedy’s political prowess, learned from his politically active father and inherited from his grandfather, who once served as Boston mayor, helped him further his public-policy agenda. He learned to build alliances and coalitions at the grassroots level, starting with town and state party leaders. He started the process of breaking the grip on legislation enforced by a coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and conservative Midwestern and Western Republicans. This set the stage for civil rights legislation and the “Great Society” programs of President Lyndon Johnson.

That progressive vision on civil rights and social and economic justice had actually been Kennedy’s objective, although he was killed before he could spearhead the legislative action to bring it about, Sandman said.

“John F. Kennedy had a real commitment to doing the right thing and to bringing about the reality of social and economic justice,” Sandman said.  “He really wanted to end poverty.  President Johnson picked up on these objectives and carried them to fruition.”

So while many historians properly give Johnson credit for civil rights and other social-justice legislation, the legacy is also Kennedy’s because he helped prepare the political and public support and established the groundwork for the legislation, Sandman said.

“John F. Kennedy was a president who left a rich legacy,” Sandman said. “He had the vision and skills to move the country forward. Because of him, our nation has a better and more progressive society than it would have been without him.”

The University of New Haven is a private, top-tier comprehensive institution recognized as a national leader in experiential education. Founded in 1920 on the campus of Yale University in cooperation with Northeastern University, UNH moved to its current West Haven campus in 1960. The University operates a satellite campus in Tuscany, Italy, and offers programs at several locations throughout Connecticut and in New Mexico. UNH provides its students with a unique combination of a solid liberal arts education and real-world, hands-on career and research opportunities. The University enrolls approximately 6,400 students, including nearly 1,800 graduate students and more than 4,600 undergraduates – the majority of whom reside in University housing. Through its College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, Tagliatela College of Engineering, and College of Lifelong & eLearning, UNH offers 75 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. UNH students have access to more than 50 study abroad programs worldwide, and its student-athletes compete in 16 varsity sports in the NCAA Division II’s highly competitive Northeast-10 Conference.

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