The Men in the Room

1 2cq5dam.web.1280 3 4 5 New York Times 6 John Kennedy and Robert McNamara in NYC Prior to Kennedy's Inauguration

There are 24 hours in a day, and it is probably safe to assume that the president spends many of those hours in briefing sessions. Staying in the loop is an essential part of the job as the leader of the free world. Of the millions of presidential briefings that have been conducted in the history of the U.S. presidency, we came across a picture of one of these moments – President Kennedy at the Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex back in 1962. The key word here is missile. This was at the height of the Cold War and America was packing. When we first came across this photograph, we had two immediate reactions: what would’ve happened if Kennedy had ordered to push the launch button and who were the other men in the room? Although the answer to the first will forever remain a mystery, we’ll attempt to put a little context to the latter.

President’s Day is a holiday reserved to honor a short list of 44 Americans, and rightfully so. But if we’ve learned anything from House of Cards, it’s as important to pay close attention to the people behind the president as the Commander-in-Chief himself. After all, the person at the top isn’t the only one who makes history. For President’s Day 2014, we decided to spread our acknowledgements and take a look at four notable members of John F. Kennedy’s cabinet and staff. For better or for worse, each had a hand in crafting the United States’ perception as a major world power in the wake of WWII, and for setting the course for American leadership, both domestic and abroad, during the early 60s for decades to follow.

As a native of Texas and decades of experience in politics, Lyndon Johnson was selected to balance Kennedy’s northern upbringing and youth. Despite his impressive career in politics – including serving as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson mostly remained powerless in the Kennedy White House. It wasn’t until after Kennedy’s assassination that Johnson returned to full throttle political leadership. Influenced by his brief tenure as a school teacher on the Texas-Mexico border where he taught many Mexican-American students, Johnson was dedicated to spreading civil rights to all throughout his political career. During his time in office, Johnson went on to pass historic civil rights legislation (the Voting Rights Act), establish Medicare and the passage of the Clean Air Act. Johnson passionately believed in the government’s obligation to help people, and he used his power to maintain his end of the bargain.

As Lyndon Johnson was one of the farthest from the president’s inner-circle, John F. Kennedy’s brother, Bobby, remained the closest. Despite his inexperience in state or federal court, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy was selected to serve as Attorney General. In his position, Bobby Kennedy saw major victories in combating organized crime and within the civil rights movement. Bobby Kennedy was given widespread authority over every cabinet department, leading the Associated Press to describe him as “Washington’s No. 2 man.”

It’s been said that besides Bobby Kennedy, there was no other staff member closer to the president than Ted Sorensen. Sorensen was JFK’s speechwriter, and Kennedy often referred to him as his “intellectual blood bank.” A strange reference perhaps, but a legitimate one considering that it was Sorensen who penned one of JFK’s most memorable quotes, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” For Sorensen however, his role in the Kennedy White House went far beyond speeches. One of Sorensen’s most critical moments was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Sorensen, who drafted key communications to Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, helped to take the United States and the Soviet Union away from the brink of nuclear war. Proving once and for all that the pen is truly mightier than the sword.

Speaking of the sword, as the Secretary of Defense and his position for escalating American involvement in the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara was perhaps the most controversial member of Kennedy’s cabinet. McNamara was born in San Francisco, earned the rank of Eagle Scout (there’s a total of four here at Ledbury), received his MBA from Harvard, was an Army officer during WWII, and had a hand in restructuring Ford into a profitable company during the 1950s and eventually became the first president of the motor company from outside the Ford family.

By way of recommendation, with less than three weeks of serving as Ford’s new president under his belt, Kennedy offered McNamara a position as his Secretary of Defense. Once in place, McNamara went on to apply principles of modern management to the Pentagon, establishing systems analysis for making decisions and improving efficiency. Kennedy often referred to McNamara as the “star of his team” and the smartest person he had ever met.

In his efforts to prevent the spread of communism, McNamara will forever be linked to his management of the Vietnam War. At the helm of the pro-democracy effort, nothing McNamara did in terms of providing resources, technology, or logic could stop the armies of the Vietcong and North Vietnam. In McNamara’s 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, he wrote, “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

New Presidents traditionally choose new cabinets and members of their staff, however when Johnson became president, he hoped to create a sense of continuity after Kennedy’s assassination by retaining many members of the former president’s cabinet. When Johnson addressed the cabinet for the first time as the new president in a memo, he wrote, “President Kennedy had confidence in you. He relied on you. I have confidence in you. I rely on you.”

When JFK was elected president, there was an overwhelming sense of optimism for a new direction for the country. To make this dream a reality, Kennedy built and surrounded himself with a strong team. All the men may not have been the most experienced, but they were the right people for the job. Although it’s been over 50 years since Kennedy’s assassination, his legacy continues today, partially due to the work of those who were around him.


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