The Columns

W&L’s Strong Compares JFK to Trump on 100th Anniversary of JFK’s Birth

— by on June 1st, 2017

“Remembering JFK is worthwhile for many reasons, but one set of reasons is likely to be overlooked. Our nation’s youngest president might be able to tell us something about our oldest.”

The following opinion piece by Bob Strong, William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee, appeared in Newsweek on May 29, 2017, and is reprinted here by permission.

Trump and JFK Are More Alike Than We Like to Think

On the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth there are countless commentaries about the promise shown by our youngest elected president and the grief felt when high hopes were dashed in Dallas.

Remembering JFK is worthwhile for many reasons, but one set of reasons is likely to be overlooked. Our nation’s youngest president might be able to tell us something about our oldest.

John F. Kennedy and Donald J. Trump have more in common than devotees for either would want to admit.

Both were second sons of successful and domineering fathers. Both grew up in wealth and privilege, though outside the highest levels of social status. Both were rebellious in school, reckless and cavalier in relations with women and eventual inheritors of family dreams for wider acceptance.

As young men, they both took on challenging endeavors, but were hounded by critics who said they were more interested in publicity than in genuine accomplishment. They were unlikely presidential candidates who entered the White House after closely fought campaigns against controversial opponents who had been on the national political scene far longer.

GettyImages-119823261US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signs the order of naval blockade of Cuba, on October 24, 1962 in White House, Washington DC, during the Cuban missiles crisis. On October 22, 1962, President Kennedy informed the American people of the presence of missile sites in Cuba. Tensions mounted, and the world wondered if there could be a peaceful resolution to the crisis, until November 20, 1962, when Russian bombers left Cuba, and Kennedy lifted the naval blockade. AFP/GETTY

They each led political parties with congressional majorities that were deeply divided and unlikely to approve new administration initiatives. They both raised establishment eyebrows by appointing family members to senior administration positions.

There is one more striking similarity. John Kennedy and Donald Trump were pioneers in political communication.

Kennedy understood the importance of television sooner and more completely than his political peers. In appearance and demeanor, if not in substance, he outperformed Richard Nixon in their famous televised debates. After he entered the White House, he made press conference broadcasts live events that won a larger audience and gave him the opportunity to speak directly to the American public without newsroom editors selecting from among his remarks.

When Jackie Kennedy gave a televised tour of the redecorated White House in 1962, her shy sophistication came across the airways in a way that was compelling and appealing. After Jack was killed, Jackie exercised close control over the visual aspects of the funeral ceremonies. Both Kennedys knew how to use television.

Trump, for all his faults and foibles, is a master of the newest forms of political communication on cable news programs and in social media. Earlier presidential candidates—mostly Democrats from Howard Dean to Barack Obama to Bernie Sanders—showed how to use computer connections to effectively organize and energize supporters. But no one in recent presidential politics tapped into the raw power of the new instruments of political communication more often, or more effectively, than Donald Trump.

Trump’s primary debate performances and rally riffs, mostly on cable news networks, looked outrageous to conventional commentators, but came across as authentic to viewers accustomed to reality TV programming. Trump’s campaign tweets invariably commanded attention. Even when they were false, misleading or insulting, they were simultaneously fascinating and newsworthy.

Trump, who emerged in the national consciousness on the cover of New York tabloids, in the tidbits of gossip columnists and in the tidal wave of reality television, acquired an ability to connect with mass audiences that is unlike anything we have seen before in presidential politics.

So, what does it mean if you are a Kennedy, or a Trump, and a groundbreaking politician in the way you communicate with the American people?

As a presidential candidate, it means that you will be under-estimated by observers who apply old standards to new practices. As an elected president, it means that you could have problems interacting with Washington powerbrokers who are more traditional in how they think and act on the public stage. As a public figure, it means you can build a larger and more loyal following than would be expected given modest policy accomplishments.

Of course, there are huge differences between Kennedy and Trump.

Kennedy had real experience in public affairs before he ran for president. Trump had none.

Kennedy had a self-deprecating sense of humor and a deep appreciation for history that served him well throughout his public career. Trump has neither.

Kennedy was able to learn from his early presidential mistakes. Trump has yet to demonstrate such a capacity.

Near the end of his life, Kennedy advocated dramatic policy changes—civil rights legislation and substantive arms control with the Soviet Union—that his successors brought to fruition. It is too soon to tell whether the big things that Trump talks (and tweets) about will be accomplished by him or by others; or whether they will be casualties in a failed presidency.

The commemoration of Trump’s 100th birthday will take place in the summer of 2046. Maybe by then we will know what to make of him as a man, a communicator and a president.

Robert Strong is the William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University.