We once had a hero for a President. As a skipper, he saved his crew in World War II, carrying one man on his back for four hours through enemy waters. As a young President, he saved the planet from a nuclear World War III in the Cuban missile crisis. He got us moving again, pushed civil rights, tax cuts, a Peace Corps, then off to the moon. He was the kind of leader Americans wanted to follow.
There was something else about him, something we knew only when we lost him. His wife Jacqueline called him "that elusive, unforgettable man." Boy, was she right. We miss him now, with those thin ties and that crisp authority in an era of snappy salutes and getting things done. We believed we could do anything back then. Things were different back then. He was different.
Here are five things Jack Kennedy could teach Barack Obama:
1. You've Got to Ask
As a student at Choate in the early 1930s, young Jack heard headmaster George St. John recite a favorite maxim: "The youth who loves his alma mater will always ask not 'What can she do for me?' but 'What can I do for her?'" Those words, spoken at chapel, must have stuck. When the time came to call on his country to meet the challenges of the Cold War, he used that redolent phrase to do just that: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
It was a call to duty. More than that, it was a very personal invitation to each and every one of his fellow citizens. He wasn't going to do this alone. The New Frontier was going to be not a solo act but a national experience. We were going to meet it together. Jack Kennedy was simply going to be our leader. He would spend the subsequent months filling in the details--creating the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress, boosting the space program, calling up troops to meet the Berlin crisis. The important thing to note is that his presidency was not going to be a spectator sport, something to sit back, watch and judge. This is what's missing most in the Obama presidency: the sense of being called to join. It is felt most of all by those who voted for him with such enthusiasm, cried on election night, got swept out onto the Washington Mall for his Inaugural. Where today are the throngs of people who voted for him? Too many of them are back home watching, back where they were when they first heard of this skinny young guy who reminded them of Kennedy.
There are certain basics to becoming a leader. The first is asking people to follow you. Kennedy asked. Obama used people to get him elected. There's a difference, and the difference hurts. As a friend of mine who served with me in the Peace Corps in the late '60s put it, "People don't mind being used. They mind being discarded."
The American people who elected Barack Hussein Obama are on the verge of feeling discarded. Too many feel they were used for that purpose: to give him the job and then fade back into the obscurity from which they cheered him and saw him as their deliverance. It's something he has to fix. He needs to start asking.
2. Create a Political Band of Brothers and Sisters
Kennedy kept a diary when he first set out to run for office. He took notes on the words of advice he got from the people he met. "In politics you don't have friends," one scribbled note read. "You have confederates."