California Democratic Council Convention, Fresno, California, February 12, 1960

I refer to strong Presidents today because I have premised my own campaign on that central issue – the Presidency itself – its powers, their use and their decline.

I realize that here in California it is easier to talk, not about the Presidency, but about the Vice President – not about the man in the White House, but about the heir to the throne (the only surviving heir, I might add.) But the Democratic Party, in my judgment, would be committing a grave error if it ever tried to out-Nixon Nixon – and I’m not sure that anyone can.

Merely because Mr. Nixon is noted for personal abuse is no reason for our own campaign to follow suit. Merely because Mr. Nixon is known for his flexible principles is no reason for ours to change. I am not nearly so concerned about Mr. Nixon’s past as I am about his future. I am not nearly so concerned about his conduct in the House as I am about his conduct in the White House. For this is no mere popularity contest. We may enjoy the sideshows, the fanfare, and the headlines. But it is a President we are electing. And no Democrat can dodge the real issue of the Presidency’s decline if he hopes to win in 1960.

When I last expressed my concern over the crumbling strength of the Presidency, Mr. Nixon replied that he would carry on in the Eisenhower tradition. Let us hold him to that – because I predict on November 8th the American people are going to reject that tradition. Perhaps we could afford a Coolidge following Harding. And perhaps we could afford a Pierce following Fillmore. But after Buchanan this nation needed a Lincoln – after Taft we needed a Wilson – after Hoover we needed Franklin Roosevelt . . . And after eight years of Eisenhower, this nation needs a strong, creative Democrat in the White House.

And nowhere is this need more critical than in the conduct of our foreign affairs. For Pennsylvania Avenue is no longer a local thoroughfare. It runs through Paris and London, Ankara and Teheran, New Delhi and Tokyo. And if the soul of a journey is liberty, as Hazlitt has said, then the road from the White House that encircles the globe is freedom’s way – the artery that makes all the Free World neighbors as well as allies.

And if Washington is the capital of the Free World, the President must be its leader. Our Constitution requires it – our history requires it – our very survival requires it. In foreign affairs, said the Supreme Court, “the President alone has the power to speak or listen as the representative of the nation.”

“The President alone ...” And he is alone – at the top – in the loneliest job in the world. He cannot share this power, he cannot delegate it, he cannot adjourn. He alone is the Chief of State, not the National Security Council, Vice President and all. He alone decides whether to recognize foreign governments, not his Senate minority leader – even when that minority leader was a distinguished Californian. He alone must decide what areas we defend – not the Congress or the military or the CIA, and certainly not some beleaguered Generalissimo on an island domain.

If nuclear tests are to be halted – if disarmament is to become a reality – then he alone must lead the way, and not leave it to the warped judgment of the AEC and the Pentagon. And if India is to be saved – if the missile gap is to be closed – if we are to help Latin American democracies (instead of dictators) – the decision is his alone, and not that of the little man with little vision in the Bureau of the Budget.

In this 1960 campaign, four facts ought to be made clear about Presidential responsibility in foreign affairs.

1. First, the President’s responsibility cannot be delegated. For he is the one focal point of responsibility. His office is the single channel through which there flow the torrential pressures and needs of every state, every Federal agency, every friend and foe.

He does not have to wait for unanimous agreement below, summed up in one-page memoranda that stifle dissent. He does not have to wait for crises to spur decisions that are long overdue. He must look ahead – and sometimes act alone – like Woodrow Wilson, locked in his study, typing his own notes to the Kaiser; or, in the words of his assistant, devouring a stack of state papers like a “starving man with a pile of flapjacks” (somewhat in contrast, I might add, to a veteran White House usher’s description of Calvin Coolidge: “No other President in my time ever slept so much.”)

For Woodrow Wilson knew, in his own words, that in a nation’s foreign affairs, the President “must of necessity be its guide – take every step of action, utter every initial judgment ... suggest and in large measure control its course.” Thus most of the great landmarks of our foreign policy bear the name of the President who initiated them – Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality, Monroe’s Doctrine, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and Truman’s Point Four Program.

Occasionally we remember Secretaries of State as well – but usually when they overshadowed their chief – Seward for the Alaska Purchase, not Andrew Johnson – Hay for the Open Door Policy, not McKinley – Hughes for the Washington Treaty, not Harding – and John Foster Dulles for the dangerous strait jacket of massive retaliation and liberation, from which a Democratic President must – and will – liberate us after a massive retaliation by the people next November.

Certainly the President should use his Secretary of State. But he should be the captain on the bridge, and not leave it to the helmsman to sail without direction. For in the words of Socrates: “If a man does not know to what port he is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

2. Secondly, the President’s responsibility cannot be abdicated to the Congress. Certainly Congress has a role in foreign affairs, Constitutionally and practically. It can approve – it can appropriate. But it cannot exercise ultimate power – for it has no ultimate responsibility. It has no way of relating widely separated events, or assessing day-to-day dangers. It has no ambassadors or armies, no access to secret reports, no right to negotiate treaties or construct coalitions. We recognized this in our earliest days when we asked the King of Sweden to address no more letters “to the President and the Senate of the United States.”

For these burdens are essentially the President’s – and he cannot shift his responsibility to the Congress, under the guise of bi-partisanship – asking our support for an unknown policy on Quemoy and Matsu – asking our support for a Middle East Doctrine that was more public relations than policy. For bi-partisanship does not mean – and was never designed to mean – rubber-stamping every Executive blunder without debate. Next year will be different – with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress and a Democratic President.

No modern President of either party, of course, would deceive the Congress – like Secretary of State Webster, reportedly using his own secret map to convince the Senate that he had cheated the British in drawing the Canadian border – while at the same time Lord Ashburton was using his own secret map to convince Parliament that in reality he had cheated Webster. Nor will today’s Congress and Executive actually meet in mortal combat – as Secretary of State Clay and Senator John Randolph did, when the Senate wasn’t consulted on the Panama Conference, and the Senator denounced Clay’s aged mother for bringing into the world “this being, so brilliant yet so corrupt, which, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, shines and stinks.”

But even today the President should be prepared to resist unwarranted Congressional intrusions in foreign affairs. Above all, he must protect his Foreign Service against thoughtless Congressional attacks and investigations. There are always some farm organizations looking out for their Department – just as labor unions, veterans, business groups and postal employees look out for theirs. But the Foreign Service has no pressure groups, no constituency – only the President. And the next President – a Democratic President – must champion and restore this vital agency.

3. Third, the President’s responsibility is to all the people. He must strengthen them – and draw strength from them; educate them – and represent them; pledge his best – and inspire theirs. If he rejects Operation Candor as politically dangerous – if he constantly reassures an imperiled nation that all is well – if he answers all critics with an air of infallibility – or, worst of all, if he himself is not informed and therefore cannot inform the people – then the Presidency has failed the American people.

We cannot be reassured that we are building the best defense merely because we now have a General in the White House. For we have had Generals in the White House before – and when Grant was asked in 1868 if he really wanted to be President, he was honest enough to reply: “No, I am a military man, not a statesman. I would just like to be Mayor of Galena long enough to build a sidewalk from my house to the station.”

Our greatest foreign policy Presidents were not military men. They did not request unquestioning faith. They kept the people informed. They eloquently defined the aims and aspirations of the nation. Mr. Eisenhower’s messages may be delivered in well-chosen words – but they sound more like the Chairman of the Board describing another profitable quarter.

There has been no willingness to say the harsh things that sometimes need to be said – to take the hard steps that may not be popular or convenient – like Thomas Jefferson, purchasing the Louisiana Territory despite outcries from the budget-cutters of his day that we could not afford $15 million for this “wilderness” – or like George Washington, standing by the Jay Treaty, despite being abused, he wrote, “in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to Nero, to a notorious defaulter or even to a common pickpocket.”

Compare these Presidents to those who yielded to public pressure instead of educating it – Madison being dragged into a war he knew was unsound – McKinley being led into a war he knew was unnecessary – Harding blessing a Disarmament Conference he knew was unwise – Coolidge hailing a Peace Pact he knew was unworkable. We cannot afford in the turbulent sixties the persistent indecision of a James Buchanan, which caused Ohio’s Senator Sherman to say: “The Constitution provides for every accidental contingency in the Executive – except a vacancy in the mind of the President.”

In 1960 we must elect a President who will lead the people – who will risk, if he must, his popularity for his responsibility – a man serving, not in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, but in the great traditions of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.

4. Fourth and finally, the President’s responsibility is to the Free World as well as the nation. Even before the Constitution was ratified, Jefferson predicted that the “election of a President some years hence will be much more interesting to certain nations of Europe than the election of a king of Poland ever was.” And today, as the 1960 campaign begins, every nation of Europe – and the world – is in fact watching our politics and our policies. As the British cartoonist David Low has said of every Free World citizen: “Fate has made us all Honorary Americans.”

And thus the President of the United States – the leader of that Free World – must represent all its nations, in his every word and deed. And to them in turn his words – in his every press conference and message – represent the real “Voice of America.” If they hear not one voice but many – from State, from Treasury, from Defense – they feel in doubt. And if they see him in doubt, they feel betrayed.

Goodwill tours and great personal charm may project the President’s own image – but a solid, creative program for peace is required to project the nation’s image.

But if the President is to be creative in foreign policy, his party must be creative. It must contain groups interested in developing issues – and that is why the Democratic Party needs groups like the C.D.C. not only in California but all over the nation. It must be a national party, not the spokesman for a single section or interest group.

And so historically and inevitably the forces of inertia and reaction in the Republican Party oppose any powerful voice in the White House – Republican or Democrat – that seeks to speak for the nation as a whole. Theodore Roosevelt discovered that. Herbert Hoover discovered that and, even before he could run for President, Nelson Rockefeller discovered it. Even President

Eisenhower considered forming a third party in 1954. No Republican President, no matter how dedicated, can escape the quicksand of his party’s entrenched interests.

But the Democratic Party is a national party – it believes in strong leadership – and, with your help, we will give the nation that leadership in January 1961.

John Adams, our second Chief Executive, would not war with France, despite popular pressures from this young and reckless land. In this way he preserved the infant nation – but he also insured his own bitter defeat for re-election. Yet later, as death drew near, he wrote to a trusted friend: “I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than this: ‘Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France ...’.”

In 1960, the next President of the United States must be prepared to take upon himself the responsibility of peace with all the world.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 906, "California Democratic Clubs convention, Fresno, California, 12 February 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.