Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Donald Trump and John F. Kennedy are more similar than you think

lucy naland for the boston globe

It is much worse than you thought. It is much, much worse.

I can reveal that the president is a serial philanderer who is compulsively unfaithful to his wife. He suffers from severe medical problems, which he and his staff are concealing from the press. One of his mistresses is also romantically involved with a notorious gangster.

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Speaking of organized crime, I understand that his campaign, to get elected, called on the Mafia for assistance. He intends to appoint his brother to the key position of attorney general. They plan to wiretap human rights activists.

In foreign policy, the story is even worse. He is planning an invasion of a hostile country, which is almost certain to fail disastrously. He has established a secret back-channel which he intends to use in times of crisis to communicate secretly with the Kremlin. Yet he is willing to risk nuclear war. And he has no objection to the assassination of political enemies and coups against allied governments.

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Yet this same president has the temerity to go to Europe and make speeches about the need to defend “western civilization.”

The president I have just described is not Donald J. Trump but John F. Kennedy. This is not “what about-ism” — in other words, I am not trying to excuse the fact that President Trump’s son appears to have colluded (or at least considered colluding) with the Russian government last year. I am merely pointing out that these two presidents — one loved by liberals, the other loathed — have more in common than you may think.

As is now well known, Kennedy had numerous extramarital affairs. One was with Judith Campbell, whose other lovers included the Chicago organized crime boss Sam Giancana and his sidekick Johnny Roselli.

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His compulsive infidelity to his wife was only one of Kennedy’s many deceptions. Throughout his political career, he concealed the severity of his medical problems (he suffered from acute back pain, hypothyroidism, and Addison’s disease).

His campaign may have called on Mafia assistance to defeat Richard Nixon in 1960. He appointed his brother Robert as attorney general. Bobby Kennedy authorized the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In foreign policy, Kennedy combined callousness with recklessness. His questionable interventions ranged from an abortive invasion of Cuba to a bloody coup d’état in South Vietnam. On his watch, the Central Intelligence Agency sought to assassinate Fidel Castro using Mafia hit-men. On his watch, the Berlin Wall was built, the ugliest symbol of the Cold War division of the world. And on his watch, the world came closer than at any other time to nuclear Armageddon, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. How was catastrophe averted? By using a back channel to the Kremlin to cut a secret deal.

John F. Kennedy occupies a unique position in American collective memory. In a Gallup poll conducted in November 2013, 74 percent of Americans rated him as an outstanding or above-average president, compared with 61 percent for Ronald Reagan and 49 percent for Dwight Eisenhower. In a 2011 poll, 11 percent of Americans named Kennedy as the greatest of all U.S. presidents. His reputation is not wholly a consequence of his assassination on November 22, 1963, greatly though that event continues to fascinate the public. He continues to be remembered fondly, for his good looks as much as the idealistic rhetoric of his speeches.

Yet here is one contemporary verdict on the Kennedy administration, written before the president’s death. It had “demoralized the bureaucracy and much of the military.” It had engaged in “government by improvisation and manipulation.” It relied on “public relations gimmicks.” It had “no respect for personal dignity and . . . treat[ed] people as tools.” It had “brutalized our allies within NATO.” It was undermining the US reputation for reliability — “the most important asset any nation has.” The State Department was “a shambles, demoralized by the weakness of the secretary of state and the interference of the White House.” Its foreign policy was “essentially a house of cards.” Thus wrote the young Henry Kissinger.

There are resemblances between President Trump’s recent Warsaw speech and the speeches Kennedy made in Europe, which routinely extolled the benefits of Western civilization. But the resemblances between the two presidents are more than merely superficial. The fortunes of the Kennedy and Trump families were made in a similarly disreputable ways. Kennedy and Trump alike used family members as political proxies. Thus far, however, Trump has done nothing to match the skullduggery and recklessness of his fondly remembered predecessor.

Perhaps Trump’s Cuban missile crisis is on its way, in North Korea. Perhaps he plans overseas coups to match Kennedy’s in Saigon. We shall see. So far, what the Trump presidency has revealed most clearly is not the way the presidency has changed as an institution, but the way the American press has changed.

Or maybe not. Perhaps, if Kennedy had been a Republican, he would have been treated with the same ferocious animosity that DJT is treated today, for acts much less heinous than those of JFK.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
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