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Matthews: Leaders should take a page from Kennedy's approach to business

Let me finish tonight with this.I'm speaking tonight up at the Pratt Library in Baltimore about my new book Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.Fifty years ago this mont

Let me finish tonight with this.

I'm speaking tonight up at the Pratt Library in Baltimore about my new book Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.

Fifty years ago this month, the 35th president had a bitter fight with big business in this country. Worried about inflation, he'd cut a deal with the steel industry that if he got the United Steelworkers to hold back on their wage demands, U.S. Steel and its corporate rivals would hold back prices. Having cut the deal, he got word that the president of U.S. Steel Roger Blough wanted to come in and see him in the White House.

When the steel company executive showed up, he walked into the room and dropped a press release on the table announcing a big increase in steel prices--right there in Kennedy's face.

That's when the trouble started.

Recognizing the double-cross, Kennedy made clear what he was about to do.

"Mr. Blough," Kennedy told the steel company bigshot, "what you are doing is in the best interest of your shareholders. I'm going to do everything in the best interest of [my] shareholders, the people of the United States."

Kennedy knew at that moment that the steel executive was screwing him, that he was not only raising prices he was doing it with impunity. He was leaving Kennedy out there on a limb with labor.

Kennedy went into action. His brother Bobby went after the steel executives in a way that, let's just put it this way, they couldn't take the heat. Expense accounts were checked, nightclub expenses were looked into, and hotel bills, anything that could embarrass the big men who'd just thumbed their noses--not just at the President and their workers, but their country. They were quite willing to drive up inflation if it drove up their profits in the bargain.

Kennedy won that fight. Big Steel buckled, pulling back its price increase, accepting the terms of the deal it had made. It wasn't pretty. It was barely legal, but Kennedy had shown some bigshots they weren't dictators.

I'd like to think there was a touch of Irish defiance in this on Kennedy's part, that he had enough of the old attitude not to let himself get stomped on by a bunch that thought of themselves as his betters. But the bottom line is this country likes to know it has a president who cannot be bullied by big business or be pushed around by a small group that thinks the boys in the boardroom are king and the rest of the country just has to take it.

Jack Kennedy used some tough language in all this--you can read it in my book even if I can't say it here--and even tougher tactics, but people knew they had a guy on their side sitting behind that desk in the Oval Office.

So did big business.

Read an excerpt from Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero here.