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A Tale of Two Presidents

On the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth countless commentaries recalled the promise seen in a young president and the grief felt across the nation and around the world 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 elected 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 in relations with women and eventual inheritors of family dreams for wider acceptance.

As young men, they took on challenging endeavors, but were attacked by critics who said they were more interested in favorable publicity than in genuine accomplishment. They were unlikely presidential candidates—Kennedy because he was young and Catholic; Trump because he had never before run for political office—and they won the White House in close races against opponents who had been on the national political scene far longer.

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

There is one more striking similarity. Jack 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. At the end of his first year in office, Kennedy observed that he finally understood that television newscasts were far more important than weekly news magazines.

Trump, for all his faults and foibles, is a master of the newest forms of political communication on talk radio, on cable channels and in social media. Other presidential candidates—mostly Democrats from Howard Dean to Barack Obama to Bernie Sanders—showed how to use electronic connections to 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 seen on cable news networks, looked outrageous to conventional commentators, but came across as authentic to viewers accustomed to radio rage and reality TV. 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 tidbits from gossip columnists, in interviews with Howard Stern 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 might mean you are under-estimated by observers who apply old standards to new practices. As an elected president, it could complicate your interactions with Washington powerbrokers who only understand the traditional ways to think and act on the public stage. As a public figure, it probably explains a larger and more loyal following than would be expected after narrow electoral victories and modest policy accomplishments.

Of course, there are huge differences between Kennedy and Trump (and between all former presidents and Trump).

Kennedy had real experience in public affairs before he ran for president. Trump had none. Kennedy had a lively sense of humor and a deep appreciation for history. Trump has neither. Kennedy was able to learn from early presidential missteps. Trump has yet to demonstrate that capacity.

Near the end of his life, Kennedy gave major speeches calling for 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.

This is a slightly revised version of an article posted by Newsweek on May 29, 2017 under the title “Trump and JFK Are More Alike Than We Like to Think.”

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