“Howard Baker … told me on the steps of the Capitol, at the time of the inaugural, ‘Mr. President, I want you to know I will be with you through thick.’ and I said, ‘What about thin?’ and he said, ‘Welcome to Washington.'” – President Ronald Reagan
Words that matters know no temporal boundaries. “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” and “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall” is a single continuous narrative reverberating from the voice of freedom, despite being pronounced 24 years apart. When sections of the Berlin Wall were repurposed into a traveling art exhibit, it was most appropriate for President Kennedy and President Reagan to be depicted side by side. I was fortunate to visit that exhibit several years ago at the LACMA in Los Angeles where I took the picture featured in this article.
In public policy, charisma and eloquence are no substitute for substance and character. It is the character of the individual that fosters the wherewithal to enact policies. Kennedy and Reagan saw the same lack of civil society in the Soviet Block, and both saw the detriment that such conditions posed to the American way of life. By the same token, both presidents also understood that the spoken word was part of their arsenal. The excellent communication skills of the two presidents were reinforced by their willingness to back their words with actions. Kennedy enacted a policy aimed at maximizing the deterrence effect on the USSR with a flexible option.
While the policy of the USA toward the Soviet Union was of deterrent containment, President Kennedy enacted a policy of confronting the threat of a Soviet nuclear arsenal some 90 miles from the US border, inclusive of a naval blockade. President Reagan enacted a policy aimed at increasing the paranoia of the “evil empire” through the expansion of the USA nuclear arsenal. Such action, in conjunction with subsequent diplomatic efforts and the occasional US military hard-line, was partially responsible for the implosion of the Soviet Union. The decision made by both U.S. presidents coherently showed resolve and consequentially influenced US economic policies.
Dr. Jonathan W. Keller, professor of Political Science at James Madison University, juxtaposed “the decision- making processes employed by President Kennedy (a “constraint respecter”) and President Reagan (a “constraint challenger”) during international crises” by exploring the Vietnam crisis response by Kennedy, and the Grenada crisis response by Reagan. According to Keller “there is important variation in how leaders perceive and respond to domestic constraints, and that leadership style is one-though not the only-important source of this variation” including the proximity of the crisis to the American soil. As Grenada was under the US sphere of influence, Regan enacted a policy of intervention with little consideration to perceived or real Congress’ constraints, while Kennedy had to craft a policy on Vietnam within the constraints of the political discourse of that time. By exercising constraint Kennedy was indeed responding to some “strategic pressures in both Laos and Vietnam” however, it is also to be noticed that he was responding to “potential public and Congressional opposition.” Therefore, Dr. Keller concludes that the decision-making processes of the two presidents in responding to crises through policies reside in consideration of the constraints the policy implementation may encounter, and not in the quality of the decision.
Both presidents enacted policies that indicated a substantial amount of risk-taking, despite the potential for humiliation and a direct detriment to their political capital. However, both were able to make decisions, which were a paradox within their respective value systems. Over time, it has been suggested that initially, Kennedy wanted to avoid a decision on the Bay of Pigs. However, in 1969 Dr. Thomas Mongar, a prominent figure in Political Economics, wrote: “he seems to have experienced difficulty separating the administrative and political functions of the presidency, which would have been understandable in view of the fact that the Bay of Pigs was his first important presidential decision.” The conflict within the leader is often part of a mindful decision-making process. In a 2013 article, Dr. James P. Pfiffner a professor of Public Policy at George Mason University illustrates the paradox of Regan’s leadership by stating that Reagan “championed huge increases in defense spending, yet he almost bargained away the U.S. nuclear stockpile. He believed in law and order, but he allowed his White House to break the law by selling arms to Iran and funding the Contras in Nicaragua. He was a staunch foe of communism, yet he led the country to a new understanding of Russia.” Irrespective of the validity of the argument by Dr. Pfiffner, it is clear that President Reagan was pragmatic in his approach and transformational as a leader.
Ultimately, the decision making processes of the two U.S. presidents were tortuous. However, they both showed the leadership necessary to construct and deploy policies in function to their respective era. Leadership is not the search for perfection. It is rather the consciousness of imperfect decisions needed to be enacted in an imperfect and volatile environment, where substance and character transcend banal platitudes.