I’m fairly desperate for ways to feel better about the current incumbent. This is a pretty twisted one, but I seem to have tried to find solace in it almost every day since I found it in my inbox.
An old friend whom I haven’t seen in more than a year reached out one recent day, most of the way through the Ken Burns/PBS Vietnam War series, with this:
Sorry, I have nobody else to express this to other than you. …
I’m sure I despise Trump almost as much as you but in watching the Vietnam series on television I keep thinking: Is Trump really worse than JFK or LBJ?
So far, at least, Trump hasn’t laid waste to millions of lives to protect his political career.
I realize there’s nothing shockingly new in the Vietnam series, still seeing it laid out clearly, hour after hour, I’m surprised at the lies, the killing that went on even as both Kennedy and Johnson realized it was all a totally senseless waste.
God help me for thinking this, but is Trump really worse than Kennedy and Johnson?
Sorry for bleating on your shoulder.
I was 9 years old when John Kennedy was elected, a born and raised Democrat and in Massachusetts, no less. I thought JFK was a man of destiny. I look back on him now as a huge disappointment, full of character flaws (for example, he was an incredibly bad husband), who got where he got mostly on good looks and money that he didn’t even earn himself, who accomplished little as president (although it’s hard to blame a guy for getting shot, and I leave open the possibility that he might have done more and better if he had lived and been re-elected). I’m not sure I have much to back up the likelihood of that.
On the other hand, although this wasn’t emphasized in the Burns film, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara believed that JFK was determined not to get sucked into Vietnam any deeper than he already was, and to set a date to start withdrawing U.S. troops … when he took that bullet, and now we’ll never know if he would have had the strength and wisdom to do it.
As I hit my teens under LBJ, I despised him. On substance, that was mostly because of Vietnam. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Although with what I’ve learned over the years about how voters decide these things, it may have been because of his droopy face and his bad manners. I do know that my impression of him has risen fairly steadily (while my boy-crush on JFK continued to fade) during the endless decades of the Robert Caro LBJ biography series. (Could we have the next volume soon, please?) LBJ’s accomplishments on civil rights legislation and the war on poverty were historic achievements that must be weighed against his disastrous conduct of the war in Vietnam.
Heck, during my life I’ve had tremendous ups and downs about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Only Abraham Lincoln seems to never — OK, seldom — disappoint. The same for Walter Mondale, although, regrettably, we never got to see him be president.
The current incumbent horrifies me. When I try to come up with one word, it’s always the same: “Horrified.” And yet, as my old friend’s forlorn email says, what has he done that compares with Vietnam for horror?
About two-thirds of the Trump horror is about style, and character, and dishonesty and contempt for facts and rudeness and crudeness and egotism and incoherence. On substance, he hasn’t been able to do much (although he will tell you that he’s had the most successful first 10 months of any president since Lincoln (and, of course, Lincoln’s first White House year featured the breakup of the country, but Trump may not be aware of that).
It’s really more upsetting that someone of Trump’s egocentrism could be president than anything he’s been able to do with the job (which is pretty amazing, considering that his party controls both houses of Congress).
So, to return to my old friend’s bleat that kicked this off, is it possible that the Trump chapter may turn out, reviewed retrospectively in the fullness of historical perspective, to have been something other than pure horror? I doubt it. But I would have doubted that my retrospective view of JFK would have fallen so far and of LBJ have risen so high. As long as we’re old, old friend, let’s try to hang on to the idea that future view of the present and the past is oft full of surprises.
And now, just because I wrote that, I’ll check the news and find out that while I was busy typing, Trump started three wars and sold the White House because a) Let’s face it, the place is a dump; and b) the offer was just too good to pass up and c) he’s president, and you’re not.