JFK and the Paradox of Leadership

The president’s “wilderness tour” showed that even the greatest politicians can only bring the country forward when the public is willing to be led.

In the spring of 1963, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin—then only a few months into his freshman term—reached out to President John F. Kennedy’s aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and to my father, then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, with an idea: the president should do a speaking tour of western states on the theme of conservation.

Nelson knew that my uncle, an avid sailor, had a special relationship with nature, an almost mystic appreciation for the winds and tides. And my father, who loved the outdoors, was a good choice to be intermediary. Some of my first memories are of walking in Rock Creek Park, near our house in Georgetown, where once he even built a raft to float down. When I was growing up, we went on rafting trips—down the Yampa and Green rivers in Utah, the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, the Colorado. Once we even went on a camping trip with Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

The president quickly agreed to do the speaking tour, at least in part because it would be a way to test the waters ahead of his 1964 reelection campaign. Though the trip was billed as “nonpolitical”—a reminder of how different times were back then, when campaigning a year before an election was considered unseemly—everyone understood that it was a campaign tour in all but name, a measure of Kennedy’s appeal in deep Goldwater country, states he had lost in 1960. “Kennedy Tour Is Test for ’64,” read a headline in the New York Times. The article, like many reports about the trip, put “nonpolitical” in quotes.

But that’s not how Senator Nelson saw it. In letters to the president, he described the tour as a way to finally draw attention to what he saw as a crisis of declining natural resources—“water pollution, soil erosion, wildlife, habitat destruction, vanishing open spaces, shortage of parks etc.” Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had been published the previous year, and Nelson was convinced that the American people were passionately interested in the issue of conservation. What was missing, he told the president, was leadership. “This is a political issue to be settled at the political level but strangely politicians seldom talk about it,” he wrote. JFK’s leadership would be the spark that could ignite a movement.

Or so Nelson thought. JFK set out for the trip in September, and it didn’t take long for Nelson to notice that the crowds that greeted him exhibited little enthusiasm for talk of wilderness protection. They were “unresponsive and restless,” as one of the trip’s organizers lamented at the time. Reporters lambasted Kennedy’s first few speeches as being beneath his usual standard for eloquence and charisma. “Seldom in his nearly three years of office had his performance been so lackluster,” the Times reported. But as any politician will tell you, it’s hard to give a rousing speech to a crowd that’s not interested in the topic.

The turning point came a few days in, during a stop in Billings, Montana. Senator Mike Mansfield introduced the president to the crowd, and Kennedy began his remarks by thanking Mansfield for his work on the nuclear test ban treaty, which the Senate had ratified the day before Kennedy’s trip began. Kennedy was stunned as the previously staid crowd broke into rapturous cheers and applause.

Kennedy then ditched his prepared remarks on the environment, continuing instead to riff extemporaneously about the test ban treaty. At each stop of the trip, arms control continued to send crowds into a frenzy. As the historian Thurston Clarke recounts in JFK’s Last Hundred Days, the president had “a talent for recognizing and profiting from revelatory moments like this one.” The speech was “an exercise in political discovery,” in the words of NBC political correspondent Sander Vanocur—a moment in which Kennedy discovered that nuclear arms reduction could be a winning campaign issue.

In 1963, Kennedy sensed that Americans weren’t ready to throw their energy behind a push to protect the environment. But he saw with equal acuity that the people were desperately ready for leadership on reducing the threat of nuclear war.

It was a moment of discovery, too, for Gaylord Nelson, as he explained to me years later when he was the senior council to the Wilderness Society, on whose board I was serving. For him, the lesson was that even a politician as gifted as Kennedy couldn’t lead on an issue if the public wasn’t ready. Nelson had misjudged the public’s appetite for environmental leadership. What he needed to do, he realized, was get to work building up the environmental movement to create the conditions where leadership could be effective.

This was the insight that led Nelson to spend the next seven years elevating awareness of environmental issues—an effort that culminated in the first Earth Day, in April 1970, when some twenty million Americans joined in demonstrations. It’s easy to forget now, but that first wave of the environmental movement had dramatic results: by December 1970, Congress had authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, giving rise to the federal environmental regulatory apparatus that many take for granted today.

Kennedy understood that while a great leader can light a spark that has remained dormant, even the best leaders can’t take the public further on an issue than they’re willing to go. He had the politician’s instinct for recognizing where those limits are—and a true leader’s gift of sensing when the public is ready to blow past them. In 1963, he sensed that Americans weren’t ready to throw their energy behind a push to protect the environment. But he saw with equal acuity that the people were desperately ready for leadership on reducing the threat of nuclear war. In 1963, fresh off the Cuban missile crisis, that threat was palpable, existential, in a way that environmental degradation wasn’t yet.

Today, climate change is such a threat. The danger it poses to our planet far surpasses even what Gaylord Nelson had in mind in the 1960s, when he urged JFK that “this is America’s last chance.” And public awareness of the problem, and the need to do something about it, increases by the day, as the evidence—from melting ice sheets to extra-turbulent weather—grows. That doesn’t mean, however, that voters are eager for major action immediately. As Gilad Edelman notes in this issue, a major impediment to action is that citizens who prioritize the environment the most tend not to vote (see “Planet Earth Gets a Ground Game,” page 33). Still, there will come a moment when that demand for action on climate change builds up just as it did for arms control in 1963. We won’t know it until a skilled leader realizes that the issue is finally ripe. The question is whether, at the moment of ripeness, we will have such a leader.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the first woman lieutenant governor of Maryland and a former member of the board of directors of the Wilderness Society, is director of Retirement Security at the Economic Policy Institute.