Biden and JFK: More Similar Than You Think
On January 20, when Joe Biden places his hand on the Bible and is sworn in as the 46th president, there are bound to be lots of comparisons to other presidents such as Ronald Reagan, previously the oldest president, and Barack Obama, who Biden loyally served. But the most apt comparison may be to John F. Kennedy.
At first there do not seem to be too many parallels. Kennedy was the youngest elected president and Biden the oldest. Kennedy hailed from a patrician family unlike “Middle Class Joe.” The glamour of Camelot is a world away from the not necessarily flashy Bidens. But Kennedy and Biden possess striking similar experiences, outlooks and practices that are instructive and, quite comforting, when we think about the next four years.
As young men, they both sought elected office. Kennedy’s parents believed political office to be laudable. His family brimmed with pride, stemming from his maternal grandfather John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald—mayor and U.S. congressman of Boston.
A similar mentality inspired a young Biden. As a child he named his dogs Governor and Senator. Had his U.S. Senate swearing-in ceremony been held just 45 days earlier, Biden would not have been old enough to be a senator. Only five senators in all of American history have been elected younger than Biden.
Kennedy and Biden were respectively 27 and 30 years old when they faced tragedy. Kennedy’s close and older brother was killed in WWII when his plane exploded, and Biden’s wife and infant daughter perished in an automobile accident while his two sons were severely injured. The impact of such an early loss profoundly alters one’s view of the world, as became evident with both Kennedy and Biden. Such impacts can be seen in the fact that over one-fourth of all U.S. presidents lost a parent before the age of 16.
Biden is so extraordinarily friendly that upon first meeting and beginning to work with him, when I was a 28-year-old Senate Committee staff director, I told one of our older staffers about it. She said, “That’s because he hasn’t been here long enough to realize that he doesn’t have to be friendly anymore.” But, as anyone who knows Biden as I have will attest, he remains famously approachable.
Both Biden and Kennedy didn’t, like many politicians, shake your hand while scanning the room to move on to someone more important. From my father Mike’s descriptions of working closely with Kennedy in the White House and from the times I spoke with JFK I found him to be, like Biden, similarly friendly. The last time I spoke with JFK, just 58 days before his assassination, he couldn’t have been kinder to a 19-year-old. Little did I know that not much later I would be Lyndon B. Johnson’s advance man visiting Wilmington, Delaware, the home of another Kennedy-like president.
Out of 46 presidents only Kennedy and Biden are Irish Catholics. While JFK faced prejudice and bigotry, Biden’s Catholicism didn’t hinder, and could have helped, his election. It’s the Irish wit that binds them. Biden would, as Kennedy did, enjoy rather than bristle at a 1961 newspaper cartoon of two senators leaving the Kennedy White House and saying, “Maybe we should have elected the Pope, then all we would have to kiss is his ring.”
Another similarity may enable Biden to return America to the Kennedy era when everyday people could name cabinet members. Biden stands out among politicians for giving credit and publicity to those under him. Consider one of Biden’s profound remarks, “We will not lead by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” He frequently credits his long-time foreign policy advisor and nominee for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, as having written it for him. I can’t think of another politician who hands over credit so readily.
Kennedy went way beyond the well-publicized relationship with his perennial opponent, Richard Nixon. Like Biden, he saw Republicans as decent Americans with a different approach. My father frequently quoted Kennedy as saying to Republican friends, “I would like to help you so let me know which you would prefer—my complimenting or criticizing you?”
Biden is well known in Washington for close friendships with Republicans, like his well-known camaraderie with the late Senator John McCain. I noticed that some non-Washington people who were unaware of that side of Biden surprised to see one of Washington’s most partisan Republicans, former Senator Al D’Amato, as one of the first to arrive at the funeral of Biden’s son Beau.
A sincere respect for Americans with all points of view—a quality shared by Biden—helped President Kennedy rise to 70.1 percent approval. When my conservative friends, who assume Biden sees them as enemies, see the man I have seen for 48 years, they too will realize it’s not so. He has the ability to bring real comity to his presidency.
No one should be surprised to see Biden promote inspiring big ideas that recall Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon or to create the Peace Corps. And, who knows, we Americans might again ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country.
Andy Manatos is CEO of Manatos & Manatos, a 40-year-old Washington public policy company. He served as the youngest advance man for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaign, the youngest Senate Committee staff director and the youngest assistant secretary in the Jimmy Carter administration.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.