John F. Kennedy on Leadership: The Lessons and Legacy of a President

By John A. Barnes | Go to book overview

Prelude: June 11, 1963

The Oval Office, just before 8 P.M., EDT.

It was a frustrating end to a very long day.

President John F. Kennedy was seated behind his desk in the Oval Office. Tension was rising because, in just a few moments, the president was scheduled to give a nationally televised address on the emotionally and politically charged subject of civil rights for black Americans (who were then known as Negroes). And he didn’t even have a fully prepared text.

This was his own fault. Early that afternoon, he simply declared his desire to address the nation that very night on civil rights, catching his team flatfooted. Not only was there no final text; there wasn’t even a rough draft. As soon as the president made his desire known, however, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, his brother's closest confidant; Burke Marshall, the assistant attorney general for civil rights; and Theodore Sorensen, the president’s chef speechwriter, closeted themselves in the Cabinet Room to start hashing out exactly what he would say.

The civil rights issue was, in many ways, a distraction the president thought he didn’t need. Never very partial to domestic policy, he had devoted a single, ambiguous phrase to the entire subject in his inaugural address, stating that Americans were “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the

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