The Unforgettable Energy
Class—that unique energy that makes people truly unforgettable—
is easier to recognize than it is to define. We
know it when we see it—but what is “it”? This book will
not only help you answer that question, but also to really be a
“class act” in every area of your life. When you do this—and it
isn’t easy—you will literally make yourself unforgettable.
(By the way, just as class is easy to recognize, the absence of
class is also easy to detect in a man or a woman. That’s not something
you want people to see in you!)
We’ll have much more to say about what class is and why it’s
important in the chapters that follow. You’ll have a chance to
evolve your own definition of class—and you’ll gain practical,
powerful tools for making yourself unforgettable to everyone you
meet. Whether it’s in business or in any other area of life, nothing
is more valuable than that. You may not realize the full importance
of class right now, but when you reach the last page of this
book, you most definitely will.
We’ll begin by looking at the often unclear meaning of class,
as well as the very clear effect it can have in both business and
personal interactions. We’ll see how class was really the deciding
factor at a critical moment in American history, and we’ll explore
how you can make the lessons of that moment work for you.
In subsequent chapters, we’ll explore essential elements that
compose class in the truest sense of the word. Lastly, in the book’s
final chapter, we’ll look at how class expresses itself through
achievement in the material world—for you and also for those
around you. This ability to create success for others is one of the
most admirable qualities of class. Like a great athlete, a class person
always plays the game at a high level and makes better players
of his or her teammates as well.
To begin our exploration of class and what it can do, let’s look
at a case in point. There has never been a clearer example of
class in action than history’s first presidential debate. The debate
took place on September 26, 1960. The participants were John F.
Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, and Vice President
Richard M. Nixon.
Over the years, whole books have been written about this
event, but it’s rarely been discussed from the perspective of class
in the way that we’ll be using the word. Yet class was a huge factor
in the debate. It made the difference in who won and who lost,
and in that sense it changed the course of history.
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were both in excellent
form at the time of their televised encounter. Each of them had
good reason to feel optimistic about the election. Their résumés
were very different, but were impressive in their different ways.
Each candidate in 1960 had been nominated on the first ballot
at his party’s national convention. Kennedy, whose nomination
had come first, had won impressive victories over the more experienced
Senator Hubert Humphrey in the primaries. Kennedy’s
wins in West Virginia and Wisconsin had made an important
point about his chances for gaining the presidency, since there had
been some doubt about whether a Roman Catholic could actually
win an election outside a predominantly Catholic state such as
Kennedy’s religion had given rise to uncertainty within his
party, but the Democrats more or less forgot those worries
after West Virginia and Wisconsin. Then, immediately after his
nomination, Kennedy made a bold and politically practical move
in his selection of a running mate. His choice of Texas senator
Lyndon Johnson may have surprised Kennedy’s core supporters
in the Northeast, but now the Democrats had a powerful national
ticket. Johnson, who was the Senate majority leader, was a supremely
experienced politician who knew Washington inside and
out. He was definitely a fighter, and usually he was a winner.
Perhaps the only drawback to Johnson’s selection as the vicepresidential
nominee was that he and Kennedy could hardly stand
each other! But Kennedy put aside his emotions to make an effective
practical decision. Was that a “classy” move? We’ll come back
to that question later in this chapter.
Two weeks after Kennedy’s convention, Richard Nixon became
the Republican nominee. In light of what the future held for him
when the Watergate scandal broke, it may be difficult to grasp
how popular Nixon was at the time of his nomination. In those
years America was preoccupied with the nuclear threat from the
Soviet Union. Nixon had won huge acclaim when he forcefully
argued with the Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev at a tradeshow
exhibit. He had also faced down a large anti-American mob
during a visit to Venezuela. Nixon seemed to offer security and
competence at a frightening time in American history. True, he’d
already had a few embarrassing moments. But he’d always come
out whole and on top. And it seemed as if he would again. He was
definitely the favorite to win the general election.
The actual positions presented by Kennedy and Nixon were
similar in some respects and very different in others. Both spoke
of America’s greatness in more or less conventional terms. But
Kennedy challenged people’s complacency while somehow still
sounding positive. In many of his speeches he referred to a “missile
gap”—a supposed advantage the Russians possessed in the
number of intercontinental weapons. No such gap existed, but, as
with his selection of Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy seemed willing to
sacrifice certain things to gain his objectives.
In light of the Republican Party’s generally hard line on
defense issues, it may be difficult to imagine Richard Nixon as
a dove. But compared to Kennedy, that’s how he seemed in the
1960 election. Not long before, President Eisenhower—who had
been the supreme Allied commander in the war against Nazi
Germany—had warned against the growth of a “military industrial
complex” that was threatening to dominate American life.
Eisenhower’s speech on this topic was worthy of the most ardent
dove, and Kennedy may actually have agreed with most of it. But
instead, he cast himself as the defender of America’s freedom
against the Soviet military threat.
As the incumbent vice president, Nixon’s campaign speeches
always referred to a secure present and a brighter future, but
he spoke of this in the context of Republican principles such as
free enterprise and decreased government spending. Besides the
overall message of pro-Americanism, Kennedy and Nixon shared
wariness of the Soviet threat and agreed on other foreign-policy
issues, although Kennedy put more emphasis on the need to
strengthen the military. The similarity of the two candidates’
stated beliefs forced the campaigns to seek out ways to distinguish
one from the other.
The election turned into a debate about experience. Both candidates
had come to Congress in the same year, 1946, but Nixon
tried to strengthen his qualifications by playing up his foreignpolicy
credentials as vice president. The experience issue seemed
to be a weak spot in Kennedy’s campaign, and before the first
debate Nixon seemed to be gaining strength. This was crucial
because at the time the number of Democrats was far larger than
the number of Republicans nationwide. The race for the White
House was so tight that any small advantage could pay enormous
But just as Nixon was finding his strength, several media
events took place that had a strong bearing on the outcome of the
Nixon’s focus on his experience in foreign and domestic policy
was damaged by his own boss. In the fall of 1960, President
Eisenhower was holding a press conference, an activity he had
never enjoyed. He was in a hurry to get it over with. Then a correspondent
asked what major decisions Vice President Nixon
had taken part in making. Eisenhower responded, “If you give
me a week, I might think of one.” The president was not really
trying to slight Nixon. He was trying to make a joke about his
own weariness and lack of focus. But the remark was a godsend
to Kennedy. It gave him a chance to undercut the whole issue of
Nixon’s superior experience. Kennedy said, “Yes, Mr. Nixon is
experienced—but his experience is in the policies of retreat, defeat,
Some other problems started to crop up for Mr. Nixon as well.
After the Republican National Convention, he had promised to
campaign in all fifty states, but a knee infection sidelined him
for two weeks. Then against the advice of his inner circle, he returned
to the campaign in less than perfect health. And now the
tired candidate had to turn his attention to the first-ever televised
presidential debate. Nixon had been a champion scholastic debater
and welcomed the opportunity to speak with his opponent on national
TV, but as the evening played out, the subtleties of media
politics lined up against the vice president.
Kennedy devoted a tremendous amount of time preparing
for this event. The recent success of his televised answers about
religion proved that the medium had immense potential for his
success. In addition, a strong showing against the highly favored
Nixon would establish credibility on the issues and further boost
public confidence in his leadership ability. The vice president also
came prepared, but the outcome of the debate would not be decided
Nixon also ran into bad luck on other media fronts. Kennedy
scored well with blacks when he came to the aid of Martin
Luther King Jr. after an arrest in Atlanta. The vice president
was caught in a conflict of interest and had to remain silent on
the well-publicized event. Kennedy used the press coverage to
fortify his compassionate, charismatic image. Late in the race,
Eisenhower stepped up his support for Nixon. This action was
balked at by the Democrats and possibly made the vice president
look incapable of winning the election on his own. The perceived
weakness was eventually echoed in the press. Combined with
Nixon’s poor showing in the first debate, the Eisenhower gaffe,
and previous triumphs by Kennedy in the media, small pressrelated
miscalculation such as these took their toll on the Republican
JFK was able to put Nixon on the defensive with his unexpected
grasp of the facts, but Nixon held his own in responding
to the Kennedy criticisms. The major story of the debate became
the visual appeal of the attractive Kennedy versus the sickly look
of the worn-down Nixon. Several factors contributed to Nixon’s
poor image. His health problems leading up to the debate had
resulted in severe weight loss. A freshly painted backdrop on the
set had dried in a light shade of gray that blended with the color
of his suit. During cutaways, the cameras caught Nixon wiping
perspiration from his forehead. He looked cornered and rattled.
Meanwhile Kennedy looked great in front of the camera.
It’s often been pointed out that people who heard the debate
on radio thought that Richard Nixon had won, while the millions
who watched on TV considered John Kennedy the clear winner.
There’s a simple reason for this. Nixon had an excellent presentation,
but Kennedy had—or seemed to have—an overwhelming
What do we mean by class advantage? It doesn’t mean that
Kennedy was wealthier than Nixon, although that was certainly
the case. What it does mean is the first important point to understand
about class. John Kennedy’s class advantage came in that he
seemed cool, calm, and in control. Nixon may have had the content,
but Kennedy had the class. Actually, nothing said that night was
particularly significant in terms of public policy or world affairs.
There were no zingers or sound bites, and the issues that were
discussed seem totally irrelevant in today’s world. But what have
endured are images of a relaxed and confident-looking John F.
Kennedy—clearly the class act, despite that Richard Nixon was
much more experienced in government and much better known.
How did this happen? Amid all that has been written about the
first presidential debate, three points stand out. We’ll be returning
to these points in various forms throughout the book, so as
you listen to them now, give some thought to how they may also
be present in your life and your career. You may never run for
president, but you will surely be facing some of the same decisions
Kennedy and Nixon made some fifty years ago. On the surface,
those decisions may have seemed to be about technicalities or
procedures, but they were really about something else. They were
about class—or the perception of class—and about how to most
effectively communicate that impression.
First, the participants in the debate were there for very different
reasons. For Kennedy, the debate was a positive choice. As a
relative unknown, he had everything to gain and little to lose. For
Nixon, however, it was a constraint. Worst of all, he imposed the
constraint upon himself, against the counsel of those around him.
Nixon’s advisers urged him not to debate Kennedy, but Nixon felt
compelled to do so. He felt he had something to prove, perhaps
to himself more than to anyone else. So his actions were based on
insecurity rather than strength.
This is an extremely interesting dynamic—one that can affect
any decision-maker, regardless of the external circumstances. The
more powerful people become, the more constrained they may
feel to prove that they actually deserve their power. They need
constant reassurance and support, which often manifests itself in
a crew of yes-men so they can head off any self-doubt.
Class never expresses itself unwillingly. Class is always a positive,
or even a joyful, choice. Even if your actions are objectively
class, the positive effect is canceled if the motivation is negative.
And make no mistake: negative motivation always reveals itself,
sometimes in unexpected and embarrassing ways.
There is an essential link between class and communication.
Class acts are people who can clearly communicate who they are
and what their vision is. You don’t have to be the smartest person
in the room to be the leader. It is widely accepted by many historians
that two of the brightest men to hold the presidency in
recent history were Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. Carter had
a degree in electrical engineering, and Nixon had a law degree
from Duke. Yet whether or not you agreed with his politics, Ronald
Reagan is remembered as a popular and effective president,
the man responsible for winning the Cold War, the Great Communicator.
When he said, “Tear down that wall,” he made himself
unforgettable. It wasn’t because of any academic degrees he’d
earned. It was just because of what he said and how he said it.
Unforgettable people speak in terms of vision. Often, surprisingly
enough, it’s not about what they’ve done or will do. It’s
about what they can see. They paint the picture of a world that
others can’t imagine, and they share their vision with words.
They don’t use statistics to make their point; they use vivid imagery.
Being a great communicator requires two distinct qualities.
The first is optimism. Pessimism has no class. An unforgettable
person looks beyond any current situation to imagine a better
time. When will that time come into being? How will it happen?
Those are mere details!
Second, a great communicator puts that shared vision into
simple words that everyone can understand. It doesn’t help to use
a big vocabulary. It does help to use language that can be clearly
understood by a truck driver and a scientist—simple, understandable,
Phrases such as I can see or I imagine or I believe are powerful
tools. Your thoughts help paint a picture of that image. For
example, it does no good to quote statistics showing that when
people enjoy going to work their overall productivity and general
happiness improve. No one will listen attentively if you assert the
importance of developing a series of systems and processes to
steadily increase people’s enjoyment of work, so that quality gets
better. Those are accurate statements, but who would be inspired
But suppose you said this:
“I imagine a time not too far from now in which every single
person who goes to work loves what they do. This is the world
I can see. Can you imagine going to work every single day and
loving what you do and the people you work with? How do you
think that would impact your work or even your personal life?
This is the world I imagine and it is possible if we work together
to create it. Join me. Choose to lead. Choose to inspire. If you do,
I know we will be successful. If you lead those around you, if you
inspire the people around you, every one of us will wake up and
love going to work. Are you in or are you out?”
The meaning is the same, but the message is very different.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can
do for your country,” said John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address
in 1961. Why was this unforgettable? Why was he unforgettable?
Kennedy did not ask us to follow, nor did he ask us to
lead. He challenged us to serve. This is the irony of an authentic
class act. Truly inspiring and unforgettable people aren’t driven
to lead people. They are driven to serve them. This subtle twist
of logic earns a good leader the loyalty and respect of those who
ultimately serve them back. For people to be unforgettable, they
need a following. Why should any individuals want to follow
another individual unless they feel that person would serve them
and their interests?
The more you are able to do that, the more you will earn the
trust of everyone around you. Not because you’re “the boss,” but
because you know what people need and you are determined to
see that they get it.
An unforgettable person wants to help others become the best
versions of themselves. An unforgettable person does not propose
to do others’ work for them. Again, the unforgettable person
paints a picture of how others can do it for themselves.
And by the way, that’s exactly the intention of this book! So
please go on to chapter 2.