100 Years Later: Remembering JFK in the Era of Trump
While President Trump may be busy building a wall, 64 years ago, President John F. Kennedy spoke against the Berlin Wall as a representation of the Iron Curtain that separated Europe between Communism and democracy.
On May 29, President John F. Kennedy would have been 100 years old. All across America, people are gearing up to celebrate the lasting legacy of our 35th president. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is opening a new exhibit in honor of the Centennial entitled American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston MA is organizing a series of events in a yearlong celebration of the centennial.
JFK led with a vision. He reached for the stars (literally) and brought the country together with a common dream for greatness. As Stephen Kennedy Smith (JFK’s nephew) said at a talk about JFK’s legacy on May 1 at the 92nd Street Y, “Kennedy will be remembered for his poetic unifying of our country.”
But amidst all the exhibits, picnics, and concerts in memoriam of his legacy, it is almost impossible to ignore the very large and very Republican elephant in the room: Trump.
To be sure, time has polarized party lines and changed American politics as a whole. And President Trump’s career is still too young to properly assess. Still, certain features of each presidency are worth comparing as the centennial looms near.
Perhaps most obviously, President John F. Kennedy, born on May 29, 1917, was the youngest president ever elected to office. President Trump, at 70 years old, is the oldest president to ever take office in the United States.
During their time in office, both JFK and Trump faced troubles abroad. In 1962, JFK averted nuclear confrontation with Cuba after a 13-day standoff in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although the president was only 45 years old at the time, he had the foresight to ignore his senior advisors on Capitol Hill and go forward with a naval blockade. This single decision is considered instrumental in preventing a nuclear exchange with Cuba.
Today, tensions with North Korea over its missile and nuclear weapons programs have many worried that tensions could lead to a military response from the United States. President Trump has already sent a submarine and an aircraft carrier to Korean waters and North Korea has already threatened to sink it.
“Well, there’s a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely” said President Trump to Reuters when asked about the possibility of a war with North Korea.
According to a Public Policy Polling survey taken in April, 39% of voters think that President Trump will get the United States into World War III during his Presidency.
But matters of foreign policy are not the only elements of Mr. Trump’s presidency that differ from his 100-year-old predecessor. JFK also championed science and innovation as a way to unify his country.
On September 12, 1962, JFK stood beside his country and united them in a common goal of reaching the moon. “For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond” he said, “and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”
Mr. Trump’s recent budget plan proposes to cut funding to a variety of NASA programs, such as those relating to education and Earth science.
The difference between the two is also evident in the polls. According to the American Presidency Project, during President Trump’s first 100 days, he had a 41 percent approval rate and he signed an executive order that threatened the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which JFK was instrumental in launching.
JFK had an 83 percent approval rating in his first 100 days, during which he also signed an executive order: the establishment of the Peace Corps.
Coincidentally, the JFK Centennial coincides with Trump’s awaited decision regarding the confidential files pertaining to JFK’s assassination. The deadline for the president to decide to reveal the confidential files to the public, as per a law enacted in 1992, is six months away.
But the Centennial comes at a crucial time in American politics as well. In the midst of this fledgling administration that is the brunt of much skepticism, we are reminded that there is no limit to what we, as a nation, can achieve, especially in tense times. JFK’s vision for greatness is perhaps even more relevant in his centennial year, and his message all the more imperative.
So this month, while we BBQ and raise our glasses in celebration of John F. Kennedy, let us not lose sight of his ever-relevant advice to “ask what you can do for your country.” He may have been onto something.