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Separated at birth? Charles II and JFK...

I recently read an old interview with the historian Antonia Fraser in which she mentioned that she sees parallels between the personalities of Charles II and President Kennedy. This struck me forcibly both because it’s something I’d thought for a long time, having read much of the literature on both figures, and because no-one could be better placed than Lady Fraser to draw such a comparison, in that she both wrote a definitive biography of Charles II and knew President Kennedy socially. She kindly encouraged me, a mere armchair historian, to work these little observations into an article, so here it is – and I’m grateful for her astute critique of the final draft. I’m sure a proper writer could present these thoughts in a more flowing piece of prose, with elegant digressions, acute footnotes and proper attribution to sources, but I wanted to keep things concise, so it’s basically a list of similarities between the two men, as I see them.

The first point of overlap is pure coincidence: both men were born on May 29th (Charles II in 1630, JFK in 1917) and that was also the date of Charles’ Restoration to the crown in 1660; JFK’s election to the presidency, neatly, occurred 300 years later in 1960. But beyond that, they shared a number of common factors in their growth to maturity. Both endured difficult times as young men, suffering serious family bereavement: Charles’ father was executed in 1649, JFK’s older brother died in combat in 1944, and, indeed, they both lost a favourite sister in their 30s. For both men, the strong Catholicism of their mother was a defining factor, and historians’ psychological profiles have tended to stress their mothers’ importance, despite their fathers being more overtly influential.

In terms of their work as political leaders, it’s worth noting that JFK chose his profession (albeit steered by his father), while Charles II was born to his; despite this fundamental difference, however, I think there are telling similarities in their styles. Both men came to power at a time when their country was hungry for newly vigorous leadership, after, respectively, the austerity of the Commonwealth and the perceived stagnation of the Eisenhower years. Both came to have a good understanding of the nature and limits of their power; both were instinctively peace-makers, who as a result were sometimes accused by their political enemies of lacking patriotism. Charles II was about as egalitarian as a seventeenth-century monarch could be, and that was definitely part of JFK’s make-up too. Despite reputations as quick thinkers, both were surprisingly cautious when it came to important political decisions. Both had an interest in what we might nowadays call “green” issues; Charles invested considerable energy in attempts to reduce London’s smoke pollution, while conservation was about to become one of the themes of JFK’s 1964 re-election campaign, as indicated by his “Conservation Tour” of the American West in September 1963, and these lines from his speech at Amherst College a month before his death: “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.”While neither man necessarily had the most refined of tastes in the arts, both presided over an age of artistic resurgence and believed in the arts as central to the functioning of civilised society.

We now know that both were promiscuous sensualists who viewed all women as potential lovers and attracted women easily; but both also enjoyed the non-sexual company of women and appreciated their intelligence. Both tended to compartmentalise different aspects of their life, and it’s pretty clear that they both assumed that all their male friends were as promiscuous. They both presided over an apparent upturn in sexual activity in the culture at large: the Restoration was a particularly libidinous era, and one JFK aide quipped in 1961, “This administration is going to do for sex what Eisenhower did for golf”. There’s an obvious and striking correlation between Charles’ relationship with Nell Gwynn and JFK’s with Marilyn Monroe.

Both men were strong swimmers, and both loved sport: hunting and horseracing in the case of Charles; golf, football and baseball in the case of JFK. Just as Charles was very interested in theatre, JFK inherited his father’s interest in the film industry (outtakes from a 1963 TV interview with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley show the President quizzing them about the new Audrey Hepburn movie, Charade). Both particularly loved ships, sailing, navigation and the sea, and both were fascinated by the technology of their time: Charles II had an impressive clock collection, and JFK took a personal interest in the space race.

On a personal level, both men were notably charming, and inspired great loyalty and affection from men and women. Both inclined towards a rationalist view of the world and human behaviour, tinged by a sense of life as tragedy and comedy, which expressed itself in an drily ironic, self-deprecating sense of humour: Charles II’s response to the epigram “Here lies our sovereign Lord and King,/Whose word no man relies on;/He never said a foolish thing/And never did a wise one” was “Very true, for my words are my own but my acts are my ministers’” – the whole style and manner of this quip is very reminiscent of JFK; both men enjoyed being teased and satirised. Both were known for their physical grace, personally courageous and sanguine about the threat of assassination. Both were physically restless: JFK was a fidget whom his wife described as highly-strung, while Charles clearly needed his daily walks in St James’ Park. Of both of them, crucially, it could be said, as John Buchan said of Raymond Asquith in JFK’s favourite book, Pilgrim’s Way, that he “disliked emotion, not because he felt lightly, but because he felt deeply.”

There are differences, of course (for instance, illness was formative for JFK in a way that it wasn’t for Charles), but, taken as a whole, I think the similarities between these two engaging and charismatic figures are striking.

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