It is much worse than you thought. Not only have members of the president’s immediate family been secretly talking to Russia. I can also 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.
Speaking of organised 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 confidential 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.
Yet this same president has the temerity to go to Europe and make speeches about the need to defend “western civilisation”.
The president I have just described is not, however, 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. Indeed, I pointed out last October that the Kremlin connection was the biggest problem with Trump’s candidacy. I am merely pointing out that, when it comes to ethical conduct, it is far from clear which of these two presidents was worse.
As is now well known, Kennedy had numerous extramarital relationships: one was with Judith Campbell Exner, whose other lovers included the Chicago organised crime boss Sam Giancana.
“We’re a bunch of virgins,” grumbled Fred Dutton, secretary of the cabinet, “. . . and he’s like God, f****** anybody he wants to, any time he feels like it.” All this was known to the FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, as well as to Kennedy’s inner circle. But it went entirely unreported in the press.
His compulsive infidelity 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, for which he needed continual cortisone treatments).
As a senator, Kennedy deliberately missed the vote censuring Joseph McCarthy, who had more than once been a Kennedy house guest. He lied to his own brother about his decision to make Lyndon Johnson his running mate in 1960. His campaign may have called on mafia assistance to defeat Richard Nixon that year.
Intervening on behalf of the jailed Martin Luther King Jr had also helped Kennedy win the 1960 election, but that did not stop his brother Bobby — whom Kennedy appointed as attorney-general — authorising wiretaps on King’s phone three years later.
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 CIA sought to assassinate Fidel Castro using mafia hitmen. 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, Kennedy himself put the odds of disaster — meaning a thermonuclear war that could have claimed the lives of 100m Americans, more than 100m Russians and comparable millions of Europeans — at “between one out of three and even”.
How was catastrophe averted? By using a back channel to the Kremlin to cut a secret deal. Kennedy did this twice: in 1961 over Berlin and again in 1962 over Cuba. It was Bobby who took the crucial meetings with the Russians, unbeknown to key members of the administration, including the vice-president.
The reason the Russians agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba was that the Kennedy brothers secretly pledged to remove US missiles from Turkey. The details of the deal did not become public until the 1980s.
Finally, it was John F Kennedy who, according to the US ambassador in Saigon, authorised the coup that toppled and killed the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 — a decision that irrevocably committed Washington to the ultimately disastrous war against North Vietnam.
Kennedy occupies a unique position in the American collective memory. In a Gallup poll conducted in November 2013, 74% of Americans rated him an outstanding or above-average president, compared with 61% for Ronald Reagan and 49% for Dwight Eisenhower. His reputation is not wholly a result of his assassination on November 22, 1963, greatly though that event continues to fascinate the public. He is still remembered with affection for his good looks as much as for the idealistic rhetoric of his speeches.
Yet here is one contemporary verdict on the Kennedy administration, written before the president’s death. It had “demoralised the bureaucracy and much of the military”. It had engaged in “government by improvisation and manipulation”. It had relied on “public relations gimmicks”.
It had “no respect for personal dignity” and treated people “as tools”. It had “brutalised 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, demoralised 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 the young Henry Kissinger.
The resemblances between the two presidents are more than superficial. In particular, both were too much inclined to see politics as a family affair. So far, however, Trump has done nothing to match the skulduggery and recklessness of his fondly remembered predecessor. Perhaps Trump’s Cuban Missile Crisis is on its way in North Korea. We shall see.
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 JFK had been a Republican, he would have been treated with the same ferocious animosity as DJT is treated today for much less heinous acts.