Using JFK’s Senate tenure as a guide to carving a path to the White House

Al Kamen
Columnist October 9, 2013

Among the 100 senators are a few who might harbor presidential ambitions (we’re lookin’ at you, Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mark Warner, Elizabeth Warren, et al).

A new book by journalist John Shaw, “JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency,” examines an often overlooked chapter in the life of President John F. Kennedy — and offers a playbook that those eyeing 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. might find useful. Here are five lessons to draw from JFK’s example:

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

●Don’t wait for gray hair. JFK was 43 when he took office. And though he was dinged for being a young man in a hurry (a New York Times headline from 1958 was “Kennedy: Good Man Moving Too Fast,” Shaw notes), he didn’t listen to the criticism.

●Use the Senate. JFK used his time there as a “policy training ground and a political launching pad,” Shaw writes. He worked on his political skills, significantly improving his oratory, in particular. “I can’t afford to sound just like any other senator,” JFK once said.

●Don’t be an insider. Don’t get too involved in the fickle institution’s day-to-day management. It takes too much time, and you get blamed when good ideas get stalled (and they always will). Fellow Sen. Hubert Humphrey observed: “John Kennedy never made his life in the Senate, as such. He worked in the Senate.”

●Don’t look back. An ambivalent senator never wins the White House. Forget your Senate attendance record.

●Enjoy it. JFK often said “the margin is awfully small’ between winners and losers in politics, “like it is in life.” He also said running for president can be a blast. “How could it be more fascinating to run for president under the obstacles and hurdles that are before me?” he wondered in January 1960.

What, no Bali buttons?

Secretary of State John F. Kerry debuted a new look Monday while attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, Indonesia. He appeared in a colorful shirt fashioned from endek, a traditional Balinese woven fabric, a far cry from his usual suit and tie — or even his more-casual khakis.

Kerry’s wardrobe change wasn’t merely a shift in sartorial direction, it marked a return of what had been one of the highlights of the annual event: seeing world leaders dressed in goofy duds.

The tradition of concluding the meeting with a “silly shirts” photo began in 1993, when President Bill Clinton presented attendees with matching leather bomber jackets. But President Obama nixed the costumes when the United States hosted the meeting in Hawaii in 2011. (So no aloha shirts or hula skirts, alas.)

Now, it looks as if it’s back.

A little branding issue

To settle the disagreement over the government shutdown and the upcoming battle over the debt limit, House Republicans have put forward the rather ingenious idea of forming . . . a supercommittee!

Only they’re not calling it that. The last panel known as a supercommittee, which was formed in 2011 to come up with ways to reduce the deficit, turned out not to be so super (it fizzled after deadlocking). Clearly it’s best to avoid such phraseology.

What’s the preferred nomenclature, then, for this potential bicameral, bipartisan body? The authors are calling it a “working group” instead. With its reference to toil, it sounds quite industrious. Some, though, are still calling it a “super” or a “special” committee.

And with 20 members, it is actually larger than the previous 12-person supercommittee, so could folks perhaps adopt the language of Starbucks and call it a “venti” committee?

Other terms up for debate lately: “debt ceiling” (President Obama called that a “lousy word”), “essential” (the kinder term is “excepted”) and even “shutdown” itself (some like to call it a “slimdown”).

Five new nominees

President Obama this week nominated career Foreign Service officer Daniel Bennett Smith, most recently ambassador to Greece, to be assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. Ambassador to Guatemala Arnold A. Chacón, also a career Foreign Service officer, was chosen to be director general of the Foreign Service.

At the Commerce Department, Arun M. Kumar, a longtime software and minisupercomputer company executive, is Obama’s pick to be assistant secretary and director general of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service in the International Trade Administration. Kelly R. Welsh, executive vice president and general counsel at Northern Trust Corp., is to be the Commerce Department’s general counsel.

The White House also announced that Helen Tierney, who heads the office of management at the Department of Veterans Affairs, will be nominated to be the department’s chief financial officer and assistant secretary for management.

Cowan’s new job

Former senator William “Mo” Cowan (D-Mass.) — who was appointed in January to fill the Senate seat of John Kerry when he became secretary of state, and who left the Senate in late June after then-Rep. Ed Markey (D) won a special election — is headed back to the Boston-based law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo to run its government relations and strategic consulting affiliate and be of counsel to the firm.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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