American presidents run for office with a set of promises, visions, and ideas of what they’d like to do if they win. For John Kennedy, it was to “get America moving again.” For (my one-time employer) Jimmy Carter, it was creating “a government as good as its people.” For Ronald Reagan, it was (no joke) “let’s make America great again.” For Bill Clinton, it was the economy, stupid. For Barack Obama, hope.
Then life intervenes. And while campaign promises and concepts have some bearing on what a president actually does, events that campaign strategists never anticipated often play a larger role in how effective a president can be, and in history’s assessment of him. Kennedy didn’t know that he’d be responsible for the Bay of Pigs invasion three months after taking office, or the Cuban Missile Crisis 18 months later. Lyndon Johnson didn’t know that he’d end up as president a year after that, nor Ronald Reagan that he’d be shot, nor George W. Bush about the events that began on September 11, 2001, nor any other president about the surprises, usually bad, that the world’s unplannable variety suddenly presents them with.
A disproportionate amount of what we remember about presidents has to do with how they respond to the unforeseen—either instinctively, as with Reagan’s jaunty joking as doctors tried to save him from John Hinckley’s attempted assassination, or with thought-out deliberation, as with Johnson’s (positive) decision to use the tumult of the mid-1960s as propulsion for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, or his (negative) step-by-step immersion into the disaster of the Vietnam war. The best testament to Kennedy’s intelligence and character came during the period of greatest danger: the nearly two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev jointly prevented their nations from destroying each other, and the world.