Meacham: Trial, Error, and the Gulf Oil Spill

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Forty-seven Junes ago, on a sunny afternoon in Washington, President John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement address at American University. Speaking to the class of 1963, he was philosophical and expansive, ruminating on war and peace. In memory, the American University speech stands as a testament to the early-’60s faith in the power of reason. With his characteristic irony in check, JFK is supposed to have articulated a vision of a thoroughly manageable, technocratic world in which all things could be made subject to human resolution. “Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man,” Kennedy said. “And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.”

I was thinking about Kennedy’s remarks as BP and the Obama White House unsuccessfully fought to avoid falling into the growing category of failing institutions. From the financial sector to the Roman Catholic Church, it has been a bad couple of years for—to borrow a phrase from a BP chieftain—“big, important” players in global life. Going only a bit further back in the decade, the occupation of Iraq and the response to Katrina seem to mark the beginning of an era in which apparently competent institutions have all too often proved incompetent. The history of these years fails to fit neatly into the ideological categories of left or right, for both public and private enterprises have managed to miss the mark in hours of crisis. Government is not the root of all evil; neither are corporations.

But governments fail, and corporations fail. Look no farther than the Gulf of Mexico for evidence of the culpability and responsibility of both entities for an unfolding and spreading disaster. Institutions fall short for the same reason people do: they are imperfect, because nothing is perfect. The danger of making this observation, as self-evidently true as it is, is that it could be interpreted as an excuse for failure rather than what it is, which is an explanation. And explanations are most useful when they point us toward the solution of a problem, not toward accepting the intractability of a given set of circumstances.

Which is not to say that Kennedy was right to assert that “no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” Conservative writers have sometimes pointed to Kennedy’s American University speech as an example of the hubris of the New Frontier and as a foreshadowing of the overreaching of the Great Society. That is a fair point, but it loses a good deal of its fairness when one reads the whole speech. A careful reading of the entire text suggests that Kennedy, while hopeful in tone, had not taken leave of his senses, or of his sense of history and tragedy. “I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream,” he added. “I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams, but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal. Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions—on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace; no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process—a way of solving problems.”

One of the hardest things in institutional life is to correct course in the middle of things. But this is where Kennedy’s wisdom is most relevant. No reasonable person can expect institutions to get everything right all the time. By the same token, no reasonable institution should expect people to believe it infallible. Learning, adjusting, admitting error—these are the marks of a mature human being, and of a mature institution. There is a thin line between being resolute and being stubborn, but when in doubt (and when millions of gallons of oil are spewing into the sea), flexibility trumps willfulness. Perhaps the best lesson for BP, the Obama administration, and any institution in similar straits comes not from JFK but from FDR, who said that the challenges of his time required “bold, persistent experimentation,” and that if one method fails, admit it frankly and try another—but above all, try something.