|From Joseph Simms, 1873, Nature's Revelations of Character, Or, The Mental, Moral and Volitive Dispositions of Mankind, as Manifested in the Human Form and Countenance.|
Shorter Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street ("The Missiles of August"):
No reason to worry, Trump is basically John Fitzgerald Kennedy: disgusting, but not really dangerous.Yes,
a reckless, lecherous U.S. president obsessed with his own vigor and out of his depth on foreign policy faced off against a thirtysomething dictator armed with nukes. If we survived the Cuban missile crisis without a thermonuclear war, there’s probably a way to get through this one, too.I don't think it's quite right to describe Trump as "lecherous", though he'd probably like that himself. My sense, especially from the famous Billy Bush tape, is that he's less interested in having lots of intercourse with many different women than in assault, peeping, and especially getting his presumed exploits talked about. It's hard to imagine JFK calling the New York Post under an assumed identity to get them to write about how much sex he was having.
I can get down with some of that JFK revisionism myself; it's clear that he was a genuine lecher and extremely reckless in that part of his life, and more importantly that his campaign pose as a tougher anti-Communist than Nixon boxed him into some bad company (with hideous results in the Vietnam conflict), and I'm not really convinced of his initial commitment toward civil rights legislation, though it's hard to say, given that his presidency was cut off after 1000 days, how much he might have developed (Robert Kennedy was genuinely transfigured in 1961-68, the years his brother would probably have spent in the White House, from his distasteful Cold War beginnings into an entirely new and radical figure).
But to say Kennedy was "out of his depth" in foreign policy issues in a way comparable to Trump is not putting it very correctly. He was possibly the most foreign policy–oriented president we've ever had, from his first book (the one he actually wrote, Why England Slept, written in 1940 as his Harvard senior thesis) though a presidential campaign conducted from his seat in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he attacked Eisenhower's defense and foreign policy with his (bogus) warnings of a "missile gap", to the wonderful inaugural speech that was so much about young America's engagement with the rest of the world, the Peace Corps, the welcome to the newly independent nations of Africa, and "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate," and the policy of flexible response. Like Nixon, he may well have been wrong a lot of the time, but it's really just as stupid to say he wasn't prepared as to say Nixon wasn't.
I don't believe the Cuban missile crisis involved Kennedy facing off against a thirtysomething dictator with nuclear weapons, either. The wily general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party was 68; the guy in his 30s, Fidel Castro, had no command of any kind over the missiles Khrushchev had installed in Cuba, and Khrushchev wouldn't even allow him to participate in the negotiations that followed after US intelligence discovered that the missiles were there. Douthat knows that, too, of course ("The nukes are Kim's this time, whereas they weren't Castro's"), but when you're building a paragraph out of spun sugar, you have to use whatever strands you can catch.
[Kennedy] proceeded to fulfill his promise to Make America Tough Again with a series of poorly planned, Mafia-entangled, occasionally ludicrous attempts to unseat Fidel Castro, culminating in the Bay of Pigs disaster. At the same time, he went ahead with a plan to place Jupiter missiles in Turkey, a provocative gesture that made the Soviets suspect that we were looking for opportunities for a nuclear first strike.Uh, no. As the Monsignor knows perfectly well, all these efforts were fully planned before Kennedy became president, projects of the Eisenhower administration; Kennedy's chief error was merely that he didn't put a stop to them (and listened more to his conservative brother Robert than his liberal advisor Arthur Schlesinger).
The key villain in the story of US-Cuba relations in the Kennedy administration is certainly the CIA, which worked long before Kennedy's inauguration to prepare the helplessly inept Bay of Pigs invasion for April 1961, blindsided the White House into going along with it with tales of a brave Cuban insurgency that would immediately and bloodlessly take over the country, and failed to carry out Kennedy's order to stand down US assistance as the rebels' total failure became clear.
This disaster led to the failure of the Vienna Summit in June of 1961, and the decision of the US Air Force to go ahead with deployment (agreed in 1959) of Jupiter mid-range nuclear-armed missiles in Italy and Turkey against Kennedy's reservations, because the US was now terrified of looking weak; and to all the crazy plans (abetted by an obsessed Robert Kennedy) to assassinate Castro, and these were the proximate causes of the 1962 missile crisis. John Kennedy's and Nikita Khrushchev's personal qualities show best in the way they handled that. (I'm allowing myself to be influenced here by a JFK conspiracy book that seems to be a very large cut above the rest in its management of the known factual material, James Douglass's 2008 JFK and the Unspeakable.)
There are ways in which Donald Trump is a kind of Dorian Gray’s portrait of J.F.K. — with the same appetitiveness and clannishness (swap Ivanka for R.F.K.) and personal secrets (tax returns for Trump, medical records for Kennedy), but without the youthful looks and eloquence and a patina of intellectualism and idealism to clean those failings up. And in the Korean crisis as in Cuba, our new president’s obsession with looking tough risks making an already dangerous situation worse."Appetitiveness"! My, my, Grandmother, what big words you have! Where did you pick up that one? Some Doctor of the Church, or a phrenology textbook (see illustration above)?
You can't swap Ivanka for RFK, who unlike her was hired legally, before the Nepotism Act of 1967, and had had a nine-year career as a lawyer with the DOJ and various Senate committees under Joseph McCarthy (six months), the same committee's Democratic minority (when he managed to humiliate and make a permanent enemy of Roy Cohn), and Adlai Stevenson, along with stints in campaign management. You can find him disagreeable, but you can't find him unqualified. Also attorney general is a real job, whereas Ms. Trump is a "senior adviser" without any job description (a spokesman has said she has "increased opportunities to lead initiatives driving real policy benefits for the American public that would not have been available to her previously," which at least makes it clear why she's not being paid, I suppose).
You can't swap Trump's concealed tax returns for Kennedy's medical records either. Kennedy hiding his poor health, however deplorable, was following in a tradition going back to Grover Cleveland at least, and hiding only that, while Trump is breaking a tradition of 40 years, and may be hiding evidence of criminality—income or loans from Russian-Kazakh-Azerbaijani sources, for instance, obtained for collusion in anything from money laundering to Russian intelligence projects in subverting the US electoral system. Besides Trump's hiding his health situation as well, as we've known since the ridiculous Bornstein letter of last September.
The idea that Kennedy's idealism and intellectuality were a "patina", with the implication of superficial, an outside gloss concealing a Trumpian narcissism underneath, where Trump himself is for some reason just stuck with that orange pancake, is just beyond idiotic. A patina is on the surface, but it isn't superficial; it's an indication of the quality of the metal, and if Kennedy was a fine bronze, Trump is pig iron, orange because that's where the oxidation takes him.
I haven't even talked about the North Korea situation, because it isn't remotely comparable to the Cuba crisis of 1962, if only in that it's about a threat that doesn't even exist. At least not yet. It's not even really a crisis, though it's clear the DPRK regime has been messing with our minds since the inauguration in a way that could be seen as similar to the Kremlin's messing with American minds back then, testing the new president's knowledge and resolve (though JFK's presidency was 18 months old at the time and the Kremlin had already dealt with it a lot). It's a problem that can't be dealt with by any military means; it needs to be dealt with diplomatically. It would help a lot if the diplomats existed: Trump's nominee for the Beijing embassy, Terry Branstad, was confirmed in May but still hasn't gone to China, and there's not even a nominee yet for South Korea, or for Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, heads of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, Assistant Secretary for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance and Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs, Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy in the Department of Energy. So I really don't see how any decisions are being made anyway, unless they're being made in the Pentagon, which is what seems to me most likely.
Which is the most reassuring news I can suggest here: that Trump isn't effectively the president, for this or most stuff, so it will probably be OK, for a while. He's simply the White House's resident troll. Mattis will do things I don't like, that can kill people who shouldn't be killed, but he won't bomb Pyongyang. But that situation is extremely different from Kennedy, who was unquestionably the president, even when the bastards in the CIA refused to accept it.
Monsignor Douthat keeps working on the project of demonstrating that Trump's not a Republican, but this argument isn't a winner.