It was early summer, and the wealthy politician’s son was in trouble. He’d done something terrible, possibly criminal, something that would almost certainly derail his future and harm his family.
As he and his siblings had always done, he went back to the family home, to confess to the father who’d had such high hopes for his offspring. “Dad, I’m in some trouble,” he reportedly said.
And then the family took over.
The family’s crisis team drafted a statement for the young man to give and, crucially, a strategy to shape the public’s perception. If America saw this married man in his late 30s as a boy — handsome and high-spirited, mischievous, not a criminal — he’d be able to squirm out of his misdeeds with minimal punishment.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s how, in the summer of 1969, the Kennedy camp managed the fallout after 37-year-old Teddy drove his car off a bridge off Chappaquiddick Island, and the young woman in the passenger seat died.
Every new revelation of each new Russian guest at that Trump Tower meeting, where the aim was to pass along Kremlin-gathered dirt on Dad’s competitor, makes Donald Jr.’s case look increasingly less credible.
So far, the administration is spinning it as no big deal. It’s just politics, Trump Sr. now says with a shrug. And Washington is, after all, where a representative, Henry Hyde, once explained away an extramarital dalliance by classifying it among his “youthful indiscretions,” even though he was 41 at the time.
We can laugh — but we should also recognize that Americans have a soft spot for our troublemakers and scamps who are, as Waylon Jennings sang of Bo and Luke Duke, “good ole boys, never meaning no harm.”
Start with YouTube, which is crammed with fellows in their 30s and 40s who have declined to put away childish things and have instead made their fortunes by singing love songs to their pillows or performing trick basketball shots. Millions of subscribers watch Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, both 39, eat bugs or play “Will It Taco” with pine needles. Colin Furze, a 37-year-old inventor, with his 360-degree swing and his wearable Wolverine claws, is also huge.
On radio and TV, 42-year-old Ryan Seacrest and 45-year-old Chris Hardwick have ridden boyish charm into lucrative ubiquity, with each man hosting multiple television shows and, in Mr. Seacrest’s case, a popular drive-time radio show.
Billy Bush, 45, was being warmly welcomed into the fraternity of high-spirited media man-boys, as a host on “Today,” until last October, when he was caught on that NSFW tape with Mr. Trump. In defense of the 33-year-old self the tape captured, Mr. Bush said, “I was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along.”
Of course, by the time the tape dropped, Mr. Bush was already in bad odor with his colleagues for his defense of the Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, who’d invented an armed robbery to cover up his drunken vandalism. Those misdeeds were waved away by Rio Olympic officials, who defended the 32-year-old athlete and his partners in crime by saying, “Let’s give these kids a break.”
Even readers who eschew morning talk shows and prime-time singing competitions can’t get away from the man-boy as hero.
Matthew Klam’s “Who Is Rich?,” one of the summer’s best-reviewed novels, stars the fabulously immature 42-year-old Rich, who teaches cartooning at a workshop on a college campus, where he reflects on his thwarted ambitions and desires.
“Where were the cuties of my youth?” he complains. “Women in their 40s had replaced them, hunching toward the grave.”
Readers who studied John Updike are conditioned to find those kinds of admissions adorably annoying, charmingly childish. Rich and his fictional brethren, from Alexander Portnoy all the way back to Peter Pan, are the man-boys we love to hate.
Women and nonwhite men don’t have it quite as easy.
If boys will be boys, then girls must be grown-ups, whose job it is to protect men from their worst impulses. Witness every administrative body, from middle school to Congress, that has decided that it’s easier and more culturally acceptable to police girls’ and women’s clothing than it is boys’ behavior.
Should one of these fine young fellows slip — inflamed, perhaps, by one bare shoulder too many — there’s probably a woman to blame, and it’s his punishment, not his crime, that becomes the tragedy.
When Brock Turner, once a promising Stanford swimmer, was convicted of sexual assault, his parents thought that even a six-month sentence was too much. “He will never be his happy-go-lucky self,” Mr. Turner’s father lamented in a letter to the judge.
In his assertions that Donald Jr. is “a good boy,” “a good kid,” President Trump and his camp are invoking potent precedent about how we’ve been taught to see whiteness and maleness and when — if ever — we expect boys to become men. People of color, of course, never receive the leeway that “good kids” like the 39-year-old Trump son seem to get.
When police officers shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, for the sin of playing in the park with a toy gun, their excuse was that they thought he was an adult suspect.
Maybe the scrutiny and the ridicule of this particular moment will move the needle toward something resembling accountability, but the history isn’t encouraging.
In 1969, Senator Kennedy received only a two-month suspended sentence for actions that left 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, an actual young person, dead.