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Jamie Stiehm: John F. Kennedy and Donald Trump Polar Opposites As Presidents, and Men

Nov. 22 will always be a day the heavens are hung in black.

John F. Kennedy was the American president on a bright morning in Texas. He was murdered at midday in Dallas, in 1963. The world’s heart stood still before it broke. Beyond our borders, Berlin and Dublin wept because Kennedy won over their citizens. He built goodwill abroad and spoke in German: “I am a Berliner!”

People loved listening to Kennedy for lofty ideas crossed with cool wit. It didn’t hurt that he was tall, slender and movie-star handsome after the grandfatherly general, Dwight D. Eisenhower. In his 1961 inaugural address, he made a point of saying the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans, “born in this century.” Kennedy was born in 1917, a century ago.

It’s well to reflect on a paradise lost, as Thanksgiving tables are set around the nation. I promise you this will salt the holiday with bittersweet herbs, as we consider the overstuffed turkey in the White House today.

My father and I counted the ways that Jack Kennedy was different from President Donald Trump.

For starters, JFK was born to privilege and wealth, like Trump, but wore it lightly. The Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, in shipshape New England style, is a stark contrast to Trump’s gaudy gold tower in midtown Manhattan. Kennedy loved to sail; Trump’s a golf landlubber, just like Ike, um President Eisenhower.

Kennedy was a naval war hero in World War II. On his valor, he replied, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” Disarming laughs like that are the best cut of character. Trump never served in the military, yet somehow he had the nerve to slight Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for being a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Kennedy was a true history intellectual even as he served in Congress. His Senate study, Profiles in Courage, explores men who cast unpopular votes when it mattered most. He found “Liberty and Union,” the famous speech by Daniel Webster, fell short of what he was cracked up to be. And he won the Pulitzer Prize.

Profiles in Courage is beautifully written. Kennedy thanks his wife, Jacqueline, who edited and polished the work, soon after their 1953 wedding. In their “Thousand Days” White House, the Kennedys made it a lighthouse of culture.

Poetry had a place, with Robert Frost a guest. Cellist Pablo Casals performed one shining evening. Nobel Prize winners were invited to gather there: the most extraordinary collection “with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone,” Kennedy said lightly.

But things changed this year. Trump did not host the American Nobel laureates. I wonder why. It’s no secret, he’s an anti-intellectual. He rarely cracks a book.

Before the lark in the book world, Kennedy was even up on Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. He told reporters he asked his science adviser to read it just before the monumental work was published. It was a harbinger of the environmental movement.

What a rub. JFK enjoyed banter and repartee with the news media. In a profound insult to freedom of the press, Trump declared us his “enemy” on his first full day in office.

Kennedy spoke in soaring language, some of the best presidential prose ever. Concluding his inaugural address, he declared, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days. ... But let us begin.”

Then there’s this: “The American carnage stops right here.” Trump’s inaugural address was defiantly rough. Elegance gasped and fainted in the city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm, JFK’s line on Washington.

In 1962, a foreign policy crisis hit: the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cabinet tapes show hours and days of Kennedy conducting clear, calm discussions on the Soviet Union’s sending nuclear missiles to Cuba.

In brilliant reasoning, Kennedy never let the generals have the last word. No hero-worship the way Trump pays homage to “my generals,” like former Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. JFK consulted allies and the British ambassador.

A naval blockade was the way to a peaceful resolution.

Remembering the extinguished light is like peeling an onion: you end up in tears.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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