11/22/2013 08:06 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

An Idealist Without Illusions

The soul of a great leader enlarges with experience. Eight month after judiciously escaping the trap of nuclear confrontation over Cuba, President John Kennedy spoke at American University on the subject of a stable and peaceful global settlement. "Our problems are manmade," he said, "therefore they can be solved by man." It was not so much a political speech as it was a philosophical meditation, one that reflected on how the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union had so dramatically evolved in the short years since the end of World War II and how dangerous the nuclear age made that confrontation.

Conservatives thought John Kennedy liberal and liberals thought him conservative. For himself, he said, he was an idealist without illusions. He had no illusions about a Soviet Union that devoured its own propaganda about "American imperialist circles preparing to unleash different types of wars," but he was idealistic enough to believe, against the harshest American Cold War rhetoric, that "No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue."

This from a president who, just three short years earlier, campaigned on the theme that the previous administration was guilty of allowing a "missile gap" to arise, a theme without support in fact. The unresolved mystery of John Kennedy and what might have been rests in the transformation of his character during those three short years.

During that period he had lost a baby son, his great respect for America's military and burgeoning clandestine activities had been tempered by the Bay of Pigs, he had steered a course through a potential nuclear disaster, and, by a number of accounts, had become more fatalistic where his own life on earth was concerned. Contemplation of one's own mortality and meditation on the brevity of existence are sobering. They focuses the mind and the soul on eternal things. And they fortify the ironic detachment and sense of humor for which he was already known.

And the John Kennedy at American University in June 1963, four months before the early death he occasionally foresaw, said that "in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breath the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

The immediate practical result of this meditation was to declare a unilateral halt to above-ground nuclear testing and to propose an atmospheric test ban treaty with the Soviet and British governments, a treaty that was negotiated and ratified three months later. And on October 5th, 1963, brief days before his death, he ordered the implementation of a phased withdrawal plan from Vietnam.

For those of us powerfully motivated toward public service by the Kennedy challenge to our idealism, one not heard since then, we choose to believe that he had the potential to become that rare political leader beyond politics, certainly beyond partisanship, beyond the pettiness that greatly haunts our political life today, beyond the short-term calculation of political career.

He understood profoundly that we could not heal the wounds of race and poverty when our wealth disproportionately was devoted to weapons of mass destruction. Few other modern presidents before or since have grasped that truth.

Amidst his human frailties, which so many of us share, the John Kennedy who spoke at American University reminds us of the words the poet Keats wrote of a friend: "He had an awful warmth about his heart like a load of immortality."

He was fond of a book by John Buchan called Montrose about a great, but failed, Scottish patriot. Buchan concludes his life of Montrose with these words:

No great cause is ever lost or ever won. The battle must always be renewed and the creed restated, and the old formulas, once so potent a revelation, become only dim antiquarian echoes. But some things are universal, catholic, and undying -- the souls of which such formulas are but the broken gleams. They do not age or pass out of fashion, for they symbolize eternal things. They are the guardians of the human spirit, the proof of what our mortal frailty can achieve.