Oval Office, Open Door

President Kennedy's leadership style generated a "creative tension" that energized the executive branch, but his proposals failed to excite Congress.

President Kennedy was discussing one day the problem of revamping the approach to foreign aid. His chief aid planner, George Ball, asked whether he should try to construct a new setup on the basis of what would be most desirable or on the basis of what might be politically feasible. The president’s reply was instant: “You tell me what it ought to be. I want to see the whole dimension of the kind of program the United States ought to have. And then I’ll make the political decision of what can be done.” Of the many stories about the energetic new president current in the capital, this one tells as much as any about the Kennedy style of running the executive department.

When Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson was called home from Moscow for consultation, he found himself spending a total of seven hours with the president, in contrast to the half-hour calls he used to pay to President Eisenhower. Kennedy discussed the Soviet problem with Thompson and the two other senior American diplomats in that field, Charles E. Bohlen and George F. Kennan. Sitting with them and with Secretary of State Rusk and McGeorge Bundy, his assistant for national-security affairs, the president let the experienced men talk themselves out without so much as giving a clue to his own feeling, which might have induced some to follow his hint. The decision to bring Kennan back into the government as ambassador to Yugoslavia was Kennedy’s own, and it is generally rated as a brilliant stroke.

Creative tension

The president’s system for getting information has been called by one of his aides “creative tension.” He himself has said privately, “I can’t afford to have just one set of advisers on anything,” and, “The thing I have got to watch is that I’m not just sitting here at the end of the paper chain [from the departments].”

One man who sees the president almost daily comments that Kennedy “wants to have a view of the alternatives, a view wider than that available through the departments.” This is why he has cut across a good deal of the bureaucratic setup, often going direct to those handling a specific problem, and why he has made Bundy’s office in the White House itself the center of an interdepartmental planning staff.

Franklin Roosevelt’s method was deliberately to create competition among his subordinates. There is an element of this in the Kennedy style, but the difference is that far more people have access to the president now than at any time in White House history since the earliest New Deal days …

The President and the Congress

Kennedy is not a man to back away from a fight. He wants, however, to pick the best place and time for the inevitable first big scrap with Congress. A lot of maneuvering is likely before the executive and the legislative branches go to the mat for a decision on a critical issue. Yet Kennedy knows, as he has told some subordinates, that “there will never be a better year than the first one” to draw on his public support.

A great deal of his energies have gone into building that public support by use of televised press conferences, speeches, and a mass of messages to Congress, through which he has dominated the news pages. A powerful image is a help at the Capitol for a president. But in itself it is not enough in a Congress as closely divided as this one. In a world of half peace, half war, every success in lessening world tensions tends to lessen a desire for strong leadership in international affairs. And a rebounding economy, despite millions of unemployed, leaves many unconcerned about domestic problems. To one visitor who urged stronger economic measures, Kennedy replied, “There may be 7 percent unemployed, but there are 93 percent employed.” To another on a similar mission he remarked that “Roosevelt had it easy” in winning his way during his first year in office.

As the new administration begins to come into focus, it is evident that Kennedy has energized the government as far as the executive branch is concerned. This of itself is an immense gain and is likely to be increasingly important as time goes on. He has obtained a firm grasp on the reins of the vast bureaucracy he heads; he is making good use of the remarkable talent he has gathered together. There have been a couple of poor appointments, but they are small in the aggregate.

The major problem of how to energize the nation, and through it, the Congress, remains. That there is a willingness in the public to respond is evident from the reaction to the Peace Corps. But more will have to be done. The president is fully aware of what faces him and has begun by taking steps to put his own house in shape, both for a protracted conflict with the communist world and to teach the American public the realities of life at home and their relationship to success in that worldwide conflict.