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“The Lines Of Control Have Been Cut”
Jack Kennedy came into the White House determined to dismantle his Republican predecessor’s rigid, formal staff organization in favor of a spontaneous, flexible, hands-on management style. Thirty years Bill Clinton seems determined to do the same thing. He would do well to remember that what it got JFK was the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War.
September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
The organizer of the rides, James Farmer, director of the Congress of Racial Equality, and black journalists, too, had tried without success to alert the President or Attorney General Robert Kennedy before the rides set off from the Greyhound and Trailways bus terminals a few blocks from the White House. But apparently their announcements and notes were lost somewhere in the channels President Kennedy deliberately broke up when he took office. Ignorance of the rides, however, was not as personally embarrassing as his first meeting with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to discuss Britain’s “Grand Design” for Europe. The prime minister hoped to develop a compromise power-sharing scheme on European security matters that was halfway between the United States’s inclination to make unilateral decisions and French President Charles de Gaulle’s insistence that France, Britain, and the United States must be equal partners in decision making. Kennedy had not read Macmillan’s ideas; in fact, he had lost the papers. It took several hours to find them—in the bedroom of Kennedy’s two-year-old daughter, Caroline.
One of the men in the Kennedy administration with extensive Executive experience, Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles, the former governor of Connecticut and a founder of the advertising agency BBD&O said: “Management in Jack’s mind, I think, consists largely of calling Bob on the telephone and saying ‘Here are ten things I want to get done. Why don’t you go ahead and get them done.’” That judgment was often confirmed by the President himself, expressing his admiration for his brother-manager this way: “With Bobby, I don’t have to think about organization. I just show up.”
Management, in general, does not greatly interest most politicians, but it happened that it was an important part of the two long conversations between Eisenhower and Kennedy during the 1960-61 transition period. As the President-elect began asking questions, Eisenhower quickly realized what was on Kennedy’s mind, and he didn’t like it. The new man’s questions were about the structure of decision making on matters of national security and national defense. The senator obviously thought the Eisenhower White House structure was too complicated, too bureaucratic, too formal, and too slow—with too many decisions outside the President’s reach and control. Ike thought Kennedy naive, but he was not about to say that, so he began a long explanation of how and why he had built up what amounted to a military staff apparatus to methodically collect and feed information to the Commander in Chief and, at the same time, had created separate operations to coordinate and implement his decision making.
“No easy matters will ever come to you as President. If they are easy, they will be settled at a lower level,” Eisenhower said. And Kennedy did not much like that idea.
“I did urge him to avoid any reorganization until he himself could become well acquainted with the problem,” the President dictated to his secretary after Kennedy left. But it was obvious that the President-elect was not much interested in his organization charts—or in organization itself, for that matter. Ike’s bent toward order was exactly the kind of passive thinking Kennedy wanted to sweep away. He had no use for the processes of note making, minutes taking, and little boxes on charts showing the Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board. He did not think of himself as being on top of a chart; rather he wanted to be in the center, the center of all the action.
Ike, dictating for his journal, worried that the new man did not understand the complexity of the job, that Kennedy thought the Presidency was a personal thing, a question of getting the right people in a few jobs here and there.
That was just about right. Kennedy did believe that problem solving meant getting the right man into the right place at the right time—and, if things went wrong, putting in someone else. And he saw himself as the right man. Lines of power, he said, were supposed to be like the spokes of a wheel, all coming from him, all going to him. “It was instinctive at first,” he said. “I had different identities, and this was a useful way of expressing each without compromising the others.”
He preferred to work one-on-one—hallway meetings and telephone calls to desk officers in the State Department or to surprised professors and reporters. Anyone who had just been to countries in crisis or had written something the President heard about was liable to be awakened by a Boston-accented voice saying: “This is Jack Kennedy. Can you tell me … ?” Some of them hung up on him, thinking it was a joke.
“No easy matters will ever come to you as President,” Eisenhower told JFK.
He wanted the action to be wherever he was: follow the body. At the far end-points of American policy, his policy, there would be young men like his own staff, hard-thinking patriots in chinos and work shirts, or Army berets or even native dress, ready to turn a crowd of demonstrating students or neutralize a Communist plot.