A week after her husband’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy penned a remarkable letter to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. It was a fraught moment. The Russians were worried they’d be blamed for JFK’s murder, and some in the CIA thought to do just that. Only a year removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis—the closest humanity has come to nuclear annihilation—the Cold War was a hair trigger from turning hot. 

Jackie sent the letter, a succinct, elegant note of diplomacy, “because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. … You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up.”

So she implored Khrushchev to put aside impulsiveness and ego: “The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones. While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.” 

That line about big and little men has always stuck with me. Keep it in mind as I run through a few recent headlines. 

  • On May 23, Donald Trump retweeted a video that was deceptively edited to make Speaker Nancy Pelosi sound like she was stammering through a news conference. This came right on the heels of another altered video that circulated through the right-wing fever swamp, this one slowed down to make Pelosi appear drunk or ill. 
  • The White House asked the navy to hide the U.S.S. John McCain during Trump’s recent visit to Japan, as the president’s staffers feared he couldn’t handle the sight of a ship that shares a name with a late senator who didn’t care for him. Trump’s chief of staff said it “was not an unreasonable thing to ask.”
  • On Wednesday, Robert Mueller announced that he was stepping down as special counsel and used the occasion to all but shout what anyone who bothered to read his report already knew: Trump obstructed justice and would have been charged with a crime were he not president, but it’s up to Congress to do something about it. Trump responded by calling Mueller “conflicted,” insisting that the Supreme Court wouldn’t let him get impeached (huh?), and saying that he “nothing to do with Russia helping me get elected.” He then said Russia hadn’t actually helped him get elected: “You know who got me elected? I got me elected.”
  • After a mass shooting in Virginia Beach claimed twelve lives, Trump went to Virginia—to his golf course. On Sunday, still in golf shoes, he appeared at a church, not to pray for the victims’ families—the White House said that’s why he was going, though the victims went unmentioned—but so a pastor could pray for Trump’s success, as his pal Franklin Graham had asked evangelicals to do on June 2. 
  • On Monday, Trump told his followers to boycott AT&T, a company that employs more than two hundred thousand Americans, because he found CNN’s coverage of him insufficiently fawning. 

Ask yourself: Are these the hallmarks of a big man—a big person—or a little one? 

There are other stories I could highlight, some more significant (the Department of Justice caught lying to a federal court about its census citizenship question) than others (Trump gaslighting about calling Meghan Markle “nasty”). But they all point in the same direction. 

The world, of course, is different now than in 1963, the geopolitical challenges more nuanced than the total war between superpowers that Jackie Kennedy feared. But her point is no less valid: Little people blunder into catastrophe. It’s up to bigger people—specifically, bigger people in positions of real power—to avert it. 

Here’s the thing that keeps me up at night: Trump is a little man, sure, and every day he’s in office inches us closer to catastrophe. But Democrats can yell about corruption and incompetence until they’re blue in the face. They can hold hearings. They can impeach him. None of it will matter until Republicans—the ones with power, the ones who claim to stand for greater principles, the ones who should goddamn well know better—locate their spines and become the bigger people our fragile republic demands. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Richard Burr.)

The existential danger isn’t Trump. The existential danger is that there are no more big men. 

Contact INDY editor Jeffrey Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com. 

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