How power transforms the presidential brain
OPINION:Power changes people. After four years in office, Obama is less empathetic. Romney lacks empathy even now
ON THIS day 50 years ago, civilisation’s bloody, radioactive end was narrowly averted because of the psychological makeup of two men – Jack and Bobby Kennedy.
On October 27th, 1962, an American U2 plane had been shot down over the Russian nuclear missile sites on Cuba, and the hawks surrounding the Kennedys, who included vice-president Lyndon B Johnson and most of his generals, were demanding that Jack Kennedy retaliate by bombing the sites.
Worse, a compromise proposition contained in a letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy offering to remove the missiles in return for promising not to invade Cuba had been superseded by a contradictory second letter arriving shortly after which made much tougher demands, including a public promise to withdraw US nuclear missiles from Turkey.
Jack and Bobby Kennedy were more or less on their own against the assembled advisers who wanted to take a step that would in all probability have escalated into nuclear holocaust and reduced Ireland to a blasted wasteland, given that the US nuclear submarine base on the Holy Loch near Glasgow on the river Clyde was one of Russia’s first ballistic missile targets.
Tough enough as it had been for the two brothers to hold their ground a day earlier, now with the U2 downed and Khrushchev making contradictory and unacceptable demands, their hold on a peaceful, diplomatic solution was slipping fast.
But Jack Kennedy responded with a stroke of brilliance. He simply ignored the second Khrushchev letter and replied to the first as if the second hadn’t been sent. He offered privately to remove the US missiles in Turkey – they were obsolete and useless anyway – in a few months, but without announcing it publicly.
Khrushchev’s agreement meant that we are all here today and the surviving children of Ireland are not scrabbling for potatoes in its poisoned soil.
How would Barack Obama or Mitt Romney have responded had they stood in Jack Kennedy’s shoes?
The president of the United States is still the most powerful person in the world and the survival of our way of life depends on the judgments he or she makes.
But power changes people.
Every Tuesday Barack Obama is given a set of CVs with photographs. From this list he personally authorises which of these individuals will be targeted that week by remote predator drones. The first strike he ordered happened three days after he took office and he was reportedly extremely upset when a number of children were killed inadvertently in this attack.