Tomorrow would have been the 100th birthday of John F. Kennedy.
The JFK Library’s advertising to mark the event pictures the 35th president in mirrored sunglasses that reflect the image of a spacecraft. The tagline for the ad, “visionaries never go out of style,” accurately conveys the way that Kennedy shapes our politics to this day.
It’s a legacy not without its complications. The Kennedy family is a large one, and its own internal tensions and paradoxes have recently been on full display, at least to careful observers.
On one day this month, President Obama appeared at the JFK Library in Boston. There, JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, and her children, including New York Times reporter Tatiana Schlossberg, gave Obama a “Profile in Courage Award” for passing Obamacare.
Another day this month, Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, and their son Douglas, a reporter for the Fox News Channel, attended the funeral of Fox News founder Roger Ailes, who had advised Presidents Nixon and Reagan.
What’s the right way to remember John Kennedy? The liberalism of Obama and The New York Times? Or the conservatism of Ailes and Fox News?
President Trump is making his own claim to the Kennedy legacy — as each of his predecessors has — in ways both substantive and stylistic. On the substance, Trump’s proposed military buildup and his pro-growth tax cuts echo Kennedy’s.
Trump’s rhetoric mirrors Kennedy’s. “This is a battle between good and evil,” Trump said in Saudi Arabia. Kennedy’s 1955 commencement address at Assumption College used the same stark language about the Cold War: “good versus evil, right versus wrong.”
Trump’s well received February 28 speech to Congress said: “Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present. That torch is now in our hands. And we will use it to light up the world.”
That borrowed from Kennedy’s inaugural address: “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans. … The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
Trump’s February 28 speech to Congress also echoed Kennedy’s speech at American University. Here is Trump: “We all bleed the same blood. We all salute the same great American flag. And we all are made by the same God.”
And here is Kennedy: “We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Kennedy is remembered as a great pal of Newsweek and Washington Post journalist Ben Bradlee. Fair enough; Trump is friendly with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. It’s also true, though, that in his feuding with The New York Times, President Kennedy was right up there with Trump’s own attacks on that newspaper. In one meeting, minutes indicate, Kennedy “observed that Mr. Halberstam of The New York Times is actually running a political campaign; that he is wholly unobjective.”
The most terrifying way in which Trump resembles Kennedy is in the bitter hatred that is directed at him by his opponents.
Kennedy was reviled by both the far left on college campuses and by the extreme far right. In the end, he was slain by a self-described Marxist who had spent 32 months in the Soviet Union.
There are no shortage of people who hate Trump enough that they’d be glad to see him killed.
That is one parallel that I hope President Trump’s family will never have to confront. Against the threat of it, there is the knowledge that even more than 50 years after the assassination, John Kennedy’s ideas, style, and policies manage to keep lighting our way. Not a bad 100th birthday present.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of “JFK: Conservative.”