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On the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, lessons in presidential humility

Humility is a rare presidential trait; the effort of will required to win the office and then hold it does not ordinarily allow for much self-awareness, much less self-criticism.

This April marks the 50th anniversary of an episode at once humiliating and instructive: the failed American-backed operation against Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs. Humiliating because the attack was a disaster; instructive because President John F. Kennedy realized he had made a terrible mistake — and he pledged to learn from it.

He was candid about the scope of the mess. “How could I have been so stupid?” he asked himself and others in the aftermath. Fifteen hundred men had been sent to the beaches; later estimates suggested it would have taken a whole division — 15,000 men — to successfully conduct an amphibious operation of this scope. To a CIA officer he admitted, “In a parliamentary system I would resign.” Kennedy learned official-seeming presentations from officers wearing what he called their “fruit salad” of ribbons were not always reliable.

Yet he took responsibility in public, understanding that in politics, as in life, to whom much is given, much is expected. Kennedy said, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan…  I am the responsible officer of this government.”

Most important, I think, the young president came to see that history had not begun the day he took office. Kennedy had been dismissive of Dwight Eisenhower during the 1960 campaign, but suddenly found him a source of insight. After lunch in the presidential cabin at Camp David after the Bay of Pigs, the two men took a walk.

Eisenhower asked a crucial question, “Mr. President, before you approved this plan, did you have everybody in front of you debating the thing so you got the pros and cons yourself and then made the decision, or did you see these people one at a time?”

Kennedy’s answer was not reassuring. “Well, I did have a meeting… I just approved a plan that had been recommended by the CIA and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I just took their advice.”

He would never do that again. And his experience in 1961 informed how he would handle the much greater missile crisis in 1962. We face significant decisions on sundry fronts: Afghanistan, North Africa, the Middle East, and who knows where else next. As President Obama makes his own life-and-death decisions, he might draw some strength from a defeat in a distant April — a defeat that taught another young president to beware what you are told. To ask questions. To use common sense. That may seem obvious, but it isn’t. It’s what makes a good leader — and especially a good president.