CNN has come under fire for a tweet promoting its documentary series about the Kennedys that describes John F. Kennedy as having a “legendary love life.” Almost immediately after the social media posting, critics noted this is the same network that routinely hyperventilates about allegations about the sex life of the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
There is no doubt some hypocrisy at work here, and misplaced bias. Misplaced because, notwithstanding his family’s reputation as liberal lions, JFK’s own politics would be well to the right of anything acceptable in today’s Democratic Party. Nevertheless, between now and whenever his statues start coming down, JFK is still a shining star in the history of the Democratic Party and, well, parties in general.
Beyond just being another cable news network using double standards, this incident tells us something more. What is made obvious by the fawning coverage of JFK’s philandering is that, beyond gossip, history will not give one whit about President Donald Trump’s love life. Stormy Daniels and the other women coming forward about consensual sexual relations will be a footnote, if that.
Let’s Compare the Cases
Over the past few months we have been treated to lurid details, including long interviews on CNN, about alleged affairs President Trump had long before he took office. Somehow we are meant to be shocked that the thrice married tycoon, known since the 1970s as a raging playboy and who actually appeared on the cover of Playboy, in fact was, get this, sexually involved with many women, some of whom he apparently paid to stay silent about the affairs.
The promo video embedded in the CNN tweet tells the tale of one of President Kennedy’s several dalliances while he was the president. It was an affair with actress Judith Campbell. Campbell became pregnant by the president in 1963 and had an abortion arranged by Sam Giancana, then the boss of the Chicago Mafia, with whom she also had a sexual relationship (although she claimed only after the affair with JFK). To put it mildly, the circumstances of this and other affairs JFK had while commander and chief make anything Trump has done as president look down right demure.
The difference between the treatments of the two presidents by CNN is the result of a few factors. First, the documentary and news divisions at the network likely work separately, the former with perhaps a less obvious political agenda. But also at work here is the merciful cleansing that time gives some of our heroes from the past. In retrospect, Kennedy was a boyish rogue; in 2018 Trump is a cad and a predator.
Similarities Between JFK and Trump
In a 1988 vice presidential debate, Lloyd Benson famously squashed Dan Quayle by saying he was “no Jack Kennedy.” Fair enough, but what about Trump? There are major differences, to be sure: Kennedy was one of our youngest presidents, and Trump is one of our oldest. Kennedy served with distinction in World War Two, Trump got deferments from Vietnam. But in important ways, Kennedy and Trump are not so different.
Both presidents grew up in wealthy Northeast families with a chip on their shoulders because they were looked down upon by the blue bloods of Boston and New York City. Kennedy through his father’s bootlegging and Trump through his work in the building trades had substantial connections to the mafia. Importantly, both were more than just presidents: they were and are cults of personality, bigger than life figures that inspired adoration, not just votes from their devotees.
Another important similarity between JFK and Trump is their predilection for putting family members in power in the White House. Much of the media bristles at Trump for placing his daughter and son-in-law in positions of power. But, of course Kennedy made his own brother the U.S. attorney general, something that should not be lost on those who wonder about Jeff Sessions’ loyalties. One guesses Bobby would not have recused himself from something like the Russia investigation.
How We Judge Presidents
Presidential legacies are forged in the challenging fire of the moment and cooled in the waters of time, in which some prove brittle and some prove strong. Kennedy, who had mixed results as a matter of historical fact, is still among our most popular and enduring presidents. This is not only because of his tragic death but because he had some real successes and inspired a nation at a time when it felt it might be coming apart.
To watch coverage of Trump today is to be convinced that he is doomed to be one of America’s most reviled presidents, yet this is far from a fait accompli. Just as JFK’s courage during the Cuban Missile Crisis more than made up for the Bay of Pigs and his, well, sordid sexual history, so too might a booming economy and potentially a denuclearized Korean peninsula wash the stains from Trump’s presidency.
In this sense, CNN’s documentary on the Kennedys, and presidential history in general, is an important reminder about what does and doesn’t matter in the long run. We may rest assured Daniels belongs in the latter category. Like all presidents, Trump will eventually be judged by the lasting impact of his administration, not the tattling gossip of talking heads. CNN’s treatment of John F. Kennedy is a useful reminder of that fact, and a strong indication that, right now, anyway, Trump is widely being judged by criteria that in the long run will seem trifling.