Kennedy Adviser Discusses JFK's Leadership Style and Challenges, Says Obama Faces Greater Political Obstacles

September 21, 2011
September 21, 2011 — Though he faced the Soviet Union abroad and the civil rights movement at home, John F. Kennedy presided over a government much more inclined to compromise and action than the current political climate allows, former Kennedy adviser Dan Fenn said Tuesday at the University of Virginia.

Fenn spoke to about 80 people in the Rotunda Dome Room as part of the Center for Politics' Golden Anniversary Series, which looks back at the landmark political events and personalities of the 1960s.

Kennedy "was always your friend, but never your pal," Fenn said as he described working in the White House. Kennedy was always accessible and easy-going, but kept a degree of separation from his staff, so that if he needed to assert himself, he wouldn't have to worry about hurting his friends' feelings.

At the dawn of the 1960s Kennedy was easing into his presidency, and the road was not always smooth, said Fenn, the founding director of the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

In April 1961, a few months after taking office, Kennedy authorized the Bay of Pigs operation, in which U.S.-backed Cuban exiles attempted to invade communist Cuba.

Assured by his military advisers and the CIA that the operation would come off without a hitch, Kennedy later kicked himself for not having asked enough questions before authorizing the operation, which was an embarrassing failure. It was a lesson he didn't forget, Fenn said. From then on, Kennedy peppered his aides and advisers with questions about policy and military matters.

Kennedy's question-laden meetings with aides were "like a faculty meeting... well, like a good faculty meeting," Fenn said.

Despite the turbulent times, Kennedy did not have the same level of challenges that President Barack Obama faces today, Fenn said.

Part of that is due to changes in the structure of government, he said. During JFK's time there were liberals, moderates and conservatives in both parties in Congress, so bipartisanship was required to pass legislation. But now that the parties, especially the Republican Party, are more ideologically cohesive, a "freezing of positions" prevents action, Fenn said.

Gerrymandering, which creates safe House districts and rewards ideologues over moderates, and the constant use of the filibuster in the Senate, which effectively means that 60 votes are needed to get anything done, have also impeded the ability of the federal government to operate effectively, Fenn said.

"It is extraordinarily difficult to get things done," he said.

Fenn's job in the White House was essentially as a talent headhunter: running what he called a permanent talent search for presidential appointees such as ambassadors, cabinet secretaries and others. Kennedy, who acted as his own chief of staff, didn't agonize over giving Fenn the position, Fenn said. When Fenn's name came up, Kennedy just decided to give him the job, not bothering to inquire whether Fenn had any experience in personnel management. He didn't.

"'I know Dan, he knows me, so fine,'" Fenn said of Kennedy's thought process in hiring him.

During his time in the job, Fenn tried to get more African-Americans in government. When faced with a department that didn't want to hire a black staffer, Fenn simply said, "Oh, OK, I'll go tell the president." Sure enough, resistance to integration would crumble, he said.

Fenn, an adjunct lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said he was one of only about 25 presidential advisers at that time. That's in stark contrast to the legions of staffers, aides and advisers who now serve the president, Fenn said.

The Center for Politics, founded by political analyst and professor Larry J. Sabato, is a nonpartisan institute that seeks to promote the value of politics, improve civics education and increase civic participation through comprehensive research, pragmatic analysis and innovative educational programs. Sabato is currently working on a book, "The Kennedy Half-Century," that will explore the Kennedy presidency and its lasting impact on American life and politics. The book will be published in 2013 by Walker & Company, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing.

— By Kyle Kondik

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications