The Perils of Charisma

Kennedy's team treated the bureaucracy as the enemy, launching a counterinsurgency that centralized authority in the White House, and placed a dangerous amount of power in one man's hands.

President Eisenhower's crime, in the eyes of many of his critics, was a government by committee. Committees are not creative. They stifle originality, impose conformity. Eisenhower had let problems go untended in order to preserve the country’s (and his own) tranquility. An “existential” leader, as Norman Mailer put it, would dare to go outside channels, to confront the unexpected with a resourceful poise of improvisation.

Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen, official historians of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, portray their leader as just the “existential” hero Mailer pined for. His first job was to dismantle the protective procedures Eisenhower had woven around the presidency. Kennedy wanted to be exposed, not shielded—out on the battlements, scanning all horizons, not seated in his chamber sifting documents. His ideal was the Franklin Roosevelt celebrated by Schlesinger and Richard Neustadt. Neustadt’s 1960 book, Presidential Power, became the “hot” item of the transition. In it, Roosevelt and Eisenhower were presented in sharp contrast—Roosevelt as a man free from procedural entanglements, Eisenhower as the slave of them. Kennedy, to imitate Roosevelt, had to become a sort of Eisenhower in reverse.

There would be no Sherman Adams in Kennedy’s White House. The president would direct his own operation. All bottlenecks to fluidity had to be broken up. The National Security Council, for one. Under Eisenhower, this was a coordinator of information coming to the president. Kennedy meant for it to be his own arm reaching out—through, over, or around the government—to get things done …

A pattern was being set, by which the president’s special teams actively took on an adversary role toward the rest of the executive branch.

Kennedy’s appointments reflected his sense of priorities. Dean Rusk, a southern gentleman acclimated to Eastern-establishment ways as head of the Rockefeller Foundation, would be custodian of the State Department’s traditional duties toward other countries. But McGeorge Bundy would supply the ideas on foreign policy, from his office in the White House. Schlesinger felt that Washington could pose no difficulty too great for a man who had been king of the hill in Cambridge: “Bundy possessed dazzling clarity and speed of mind—Kennedy told friends that, next to David Ormsby-Gore, Bundy was the brightest man he had ever known—as well as great distinction of manner and unlimited self-confidence. I had seen him learn how to dominate the faculty of Harvard University, a throng of intelligent and temperamental men; after that training, one could hardly doubt his capacity to deal with Washington bureaucrats.” It is an interesting psychological point—and typical of the time—that Schlesinger considered the bureaucracy, not hostile foreign powers, the enemy to be dealt with.

Dean Rusk soon became the butt of jokes emanating from Bundy’s circle of bright men at the White House … Rusk, it was said with condescension, actually liked to attend meetings. It was a point of pride at the White House not to hold meetings. Sorensen boasts, in Kennedy: “Not one staff meeting was ever held, with or without the President.” The few meetings the president had to call were shams: “He never altered his view that any meeting larger than necessary was less flexible, less secret and hard-hitting … No decisions of importance were made at Kennedy’s Cabinet meetings and few subjects of importance, particularly in foreign affairs, were ever seriously discussed. The Cabinet as a body was convened largely as a symbol, to be informed, not consulted.”

The Kennedy teams lived on the move, calling signals to each other in the thick of action—as Sorensen put it, like basketball players developing plays while the game moved on; not, like Eisenhower’s people, withdrawing into football huddles after every play …

A president who treated his executive branch as something to be raided, prodded, or ignored was bound to deal with Congress as an adversary. Kennedy’s lackluster performance as a representative and senator derived in large part from his sense that real power lay with the executive branch (if only a non-Eisenhower would come along to energize it). Congress was, in his mind, the epitome of government by committee. Its principal power was to obstruct, to “deadlock” the system (as James MacGregor Burns argued in The Deadlock of Democracy, an influential book of the period). A strong president was needed to use all his power against the recalcitrant legislative branch …

Kennedy’s fascination with counterinsurgency in other countries is well known. More important is the extent to which he viewed his own administration as a raid of mobile “outsiders” on the settled government of America. He had assembled a hit-and-run team to cut through enemy resistance, go outside channels, forgo meetings, subvert committees, and dismantle structures …

Abroad, counterinsurgency meant that a regime such as [South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh] Diem’s could not fight off insurgents alone; it was too mired in the past, too crippled by old compromises with France. But a team without such ties, a fresh force with clean hands, could purge and reform the administration while propping it up. It could fend off insurgents and alter the Vietnamese establishment. The assignment at home was not very different. In order to get the country “moving again,” as Kennedy’s campaign slogan had it, to make it clean and tough enough to confront the Russians, crisis teams would have to save the bureaucracy from itself, take over its duties, and force it to join the successful operation of the outsiders. Henry Fairlie rightly called this a vision of “guerrilla government.”

That ideal gives deeper meaning to a term that became popular in and around the Kennedy presidency. James David Barber claims that “charisma” was “a pawed-over concept Kennedy brought back to clarity.” But that was hardly the case. Kennedy’s admirers stretched and cheapened the sociological term adopted, half a century earlier, by Max Weber. Yet there was an unnoticed justice in the application of this word to the New Frontier. Weber distinguished three kinds of authority—traditional, relying on the inertia of sacred custom; legal, based on contractual ties; and charismatic, based on the special gifts of a single ruler. Charismatic leadership is transitory—the “grace” is attached to one person, who must constantly revalidate it in action (“existentially,” according to the ’60s jargon). It serves, amid the collapse of order or old ways, to bind together a new effort—the embodiment of a cause in George Washington or Mao Tse-tung. The founders of states, or of religious orders (a favorite Weber illustration), have to exert personal authority, since they have no preexisting majesty of office or sanction of law to draw upon.

Kennedy’s personalized leadership consciously distanced itself from the “traditional” father-king role of Eisenhower and the “legal” order of bureaucratic committees. Power came from Kennedy’s person, according to Schlesinger. It had to be displayed, deployed, brought to bear. His “cool” was his program, style and vigor his credentials. Kennedy’s term in office was later studied as just one more stage in the development of an imperial presidency. But his followers saw it as a radical break with the institutional passivity of the post-Roosevelt presidency. They were returning to the last president who had been charismatic in Weber’s sense. Franklin Roosevelt, given special powers to deal with the crisis of the Depression, broke free of tradition, defied the two-term rule, took on himself the sacred mantle of war leader, and made policy by sheer personal fiat. Aspiring to a Rooseveltian presidency, Kennedy hoped, without the benefit of depression or war, to assume emergency powers and assert a ruling charisma.

Sorensen’s account of the administration is gleefully crisis-oriented. He admiringly counts 15 of them in Kennedy’s first eight months as president. The atmosphere is perfectly caught by [David] Halberstam [in The Best and the Brightest]: Kennedy bequeathed to Johnson “crisis-mentality men, men who delighted in the great international crisis because it centered the action right there in the White House—the meetings, the decisions, the tensions, the power—they were movers and activists, and this was what they had come to Washington for, to meet these challenges.” Kennedy had come to office sounding the alarm over a missile-gap crisis—as he had sounded the alarm in 1940 over England’s airplane-gap crisis at the beginning of World War II. (A. J. P. Taylor has demonstrated that the first gap was no more real than the later one.) … Since the charismatic leader’s special powers grow from special dangers, the two feed on each other. For some crises to be overcome, they must first be created …

Insofar as the charismatic leader asserts an entirely personal authority, he delegitimates the traditional and legal authorities. Attempting to prop up the Saigon regime, Kennedy’s ambassadors to Vietnam and advisers actually called its slim claims further into question. And the same was true, in less degree, of the bureaus and agencies at home. While deferring to the FBI himself, Attorney General Robert Kennedy made clear to others that it could not be relied on for the protection of civil-rights workers. While expressing formal regard for “Secretary Rusk” (never, even in private, was it “Dean”), the president made clear his slight regard for the State Department. By relying on a few “generalists,” Kennedy signaled the lack of authority in most branches of his administration.

Charismatic authority is constructive only when it builds order from chaos. When it tries to supersede continuing forms of authority, it destabilizes despite itself. The more insistent Kennedy’s personal call to follow him became, the less compelling was any order that did not issue directly from him …

Charisma, in the Weberian sense, is not transferable—even to members of the “graced” leader’s own family. But later presidents would be measured by the expectations Kennedy raised. He did not so much elevate the office as cripple those who held it after him. His legend has haunted them; his light has cast them in shadow.

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