(Because of their publication schedule, this op-ed in today’s Cape Cod Times was written two weeks ago, pre-Comey, pre-Sessions and pre-Republican baseball shootout. Dealing with the subject of sputtering outrage at the time, it now seems like a artifact from another era.)
Critics, including syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker in “Family politics: Why is Kushner a shadow secretary of state?” (Ideas & Opinion, June 2), have decried President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner for the latter’s contacts during the presidential transition with the Russian ambassador and a Russian banker.
Kushner, who has since been appointed to the White House staff, is a businessman whose success, while still nothing to sneer at, was like that of his father-in-law, of the type greatly assisted by birth into a wealthy family.
Kushner, the detractors lament, is untrained and inexperienced in foreign relations and national security matters. His position is asserted to be another departure by Trump from presidential norms and protocol. Nothing could be further from the truth. Presidential confidants, unsophisticated in international diplomacy, have met with foreign leaders on behalf of the president often in the history of the republic and at its moments of greatest peril.
Col. Edward M. House, a Texas businessman and back-room politician, was an early supporter of Woodrow Wilson. Without any official government title or diplomatic experience, House traveled on behalf of President Wilson in Europe between 1914 and America’s entry into World War I. He transmitted Wilson’s views directly to European governments and their views to Wilson. After the war, House served in the American delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference. Wilson lost confidence in House when Wilson came to believe House had taken liberties in negotiations during the president’s temporary absence in Washington.
Although he was not a member of a presidential family, Harry Hopkins was so depended upon by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that, unlike even Kushner, he lived for some years in the White House itself. Trained as a social worker, Hopkins gained Roosevelt’s trust and admiration by his successful operation of several New Deal agencies, ultimately the Works Progress Administration. At the approach of World War II, FDR put Hopkins’ political and analytical skills to work at the Lend Lease program, manufacturing war materials to the countries whom became our allies. Although Hopkins had no diplomatic or foreign experience, Roosevelt repeatedly used Hopkins as an emissary to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin before and during the war. Churchill, enthralled by Hopkins, dubbed him “Lord Root of the Matter.”
The appointment of another member of a presidential family, not to the White House staff but as attorney general of the United States, met with great criticism. Although his stewardship of the Justice Department is generally regarded as a success, President John F. Kennedy’s brother Robert F. Kennedy had previous legal experience only as a junior lawyer in the Justice Department and counsel to two Senate committees. Without an official connection to the foreign affairs or national security apparatus, RFK secretly met dozens of times during the first two years of the administration before the Cuban missile crisis with a Soviet military intelligence agent to serve as a conduit or “back channel” of direct communication between the president and Nikita Khruschev. The meetings ended when RFK thought he had been lied to before the missile crisis.
The essential requirement for the role of direct but unofficial presidential envoy is not diplomatic experience or technical knowledge, but intelligence and the complete trust and confidence of the president. The reflexive Trump opponents need to take a deep breath and read a little history.
Brian R. Merrick of West Barnstable will lecture on “Center of the World; the Cape Cod Presidential Summers of John F. Kennedy” in the Tales of Cape Cod program series, Monday, Aug. 7, at 7 p.m. at the Olde Colonial Courthouse, Route 6A, Barnstable Village.