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What Would JFK Do About the Shutdown?

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I was scheduled to give a book talk on John F. Kennedy's legacy at the National Archives in Washington this week, but it was postponed due to the government shutdown. This made me wonder: How would JFK address the present quandary?

While Kennedy never confronted a government shutdown, he did have a particular style for dealing with national crises that is suggestive of how he might seek to end the current obstructionism.

First, he would be meeting regularly with Republican leaders. Though his legislative aims were often scuttled (many times by conservative members of his own party), Kennedy nonetheless worked on building relationships with his adversaries. He recognized that leaders have to build a level of trust with one another in order to facilitate compromise, and a spirit of cooperation stems from having personal relationships.

His work on civil rights is a case in point. He called meetings at the White House with Republican congressional leaders to identify a roadmap for passing civil rights legislation. He gave them advance notice of his major civil rights speech in June 1963. He knew he had to work with them in order to build the support he needed in congress, and that progress required joint efforts.

The negotiations would nonetheless be tense. Kennedy would appeal to his opponents' sense of duty and the need for the sides to come together for the sake of the country. He would also stress the political realities of the situation: If his adversaries did not cooperate, he would be forced to respond forcefully, including exerting pressure on individuals from competitive congressional districts or perhaps even issuing executive orders to compel certain actions.

While privately negotiating with his opponents, Kennedy would be making an emphatic case to the public at large that a shutdown in this context is wrong and immoral. He would address the nation in a primetime, televised speech as he did with his civil rights address. He would label those holding our country hostage as selfish and unpatriotic, the way he admonished greedy steel executives in April 1962 for seeking private profit at the expense of the public good. He would recite the damage being caused by the shutdown, including the cessation of patients receiving cutting-edge cancer treatment; the closure of our national parks and buildings; the furlough of government workers; the distraction from the looming debt ceiling issue; the risk to national prestige; and much more.

More basically, he would outline this issue as a moral crisis, in which the future of American democracy itself is on the line. Moral issues, by nature, are not debatable; they are black-and-white, and individuals must choose sides. Kennedy would therefore make an emotional appeal to all citizens, asking them to consider if they were on the side of right and if their leaders were serving them well.

Times, of course, are very different now. But despite the 50 years that have passed, Kennedy's message still resonates: There is a difference between doing what is legal and what is moral, and we must meet both of these standards. Refusing to vote on a spending bill in this context may be constitutionally permissible, but it is not "right." Closing the government over legislation that has been ratified by the Supreme Court is the moral fault line in America at this moment. Kennedy would make this clear, reminding Americans that we must accept our responsibilities as citizens and cooperate. This begins by answering a simple question: What comes first, politics or country?

Scott D. Reich is an attorney at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP in New York. He is the author of "The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation."