By Will Kubzansky
Adam Kennedy’s story sounds familiar to most Burke students.
He began as a sixth grader — his mom, he says, loved the small class sizes — and stayed through his senior year of high school. He took every history class he could take, including some with Chris Jones, ran cross country, and reacted to elections along with the rest of the school. He made lifelong friends with whom he says he’s built relationships that have gone on for decades.
He also joined the Trump Administration on its first day in 2017.
Kennedy, the deputy director of communications in a White House without a director of communications, always seems to know what story he’s telling or how to walk back the comments another member of the administration made earlier — and mostly stays under the radar.
But as a Burke alum in the Trump White House, Kennedy stands out.
That Kennedy works for one of the most conservative presidencies in American history sounds oxymoronic given Burke’s reputation as a hyper-progressive school.
And yet, Kennedy is now an important figure in the White House’s hyper-conservative communications department, partially in charge of the message Americans hear from the president on a daily basis.
Kennedy doesn’t seem too concerned with the stark gap between his high school and where he is now, but it begs the question of how what Kennedy called one of the “most progressive schools” in the city produced a high-level official in one of the furthest-right wing governments in American history — to which few answers exist.
From the start, Kennedy’s experience differed from that of most Burke students: he identified as a conservative.
“That’s the milieu I grew up in. Most of my family is liberal, if not a little to the left of that,” he says.
Kennedy identified as a conservative from a young age, arguing for the “least, most efficient government” inspired by Milton Friedman, the Weekly Standard and everything else he read.
But Kennedy never became a campus firebrand like his White House colleague Stephen Miller: a number of teachers interviewed, from Susan Hearn to Chris Jones, couldn’t recall Kennedy being outspoken about his conservatism.
“Adam was a great student,” Jones says. “I didn’t have an inkling of what his politics were.”
“We’ve had kids who are outspoken, argumentative conservatives. He doesn’t stand out as an arch conservative,” says David Panush, who advised Kennedy for a year.
But Kennedy says he earned a label as a conservative after the debates he had with his friends about issues such as the 2004 election and the Iraq War.
“People at Burke would look down upon conservatives. Like they were ignorant or that they didn’t know what was good for them.”
Kennedy, after a slew of internships, eventually became the Republican National Committee’s deputy director of research for policy in January 2016 before moving to the White House, where he sees Trump a few times a month.
“The president has the same personal persona as public persona. He’s funny, incredibly knowledgeable, incredibly smart, an incredible communicator,” Kennedy says.
Political opinions can change — but the shift from Kennedy’s earlier, quieter conservatism to a direct proponent of a Trump administration that liberals, including a number at Burke, accuse of peddling racism and xenophobia, seems hard to imagine.
“He was very reasonable, so it does surprise me to see him working in the White House right now,” Jones adds.
Panush brought up another point: that the school has drifted further left over the years and that being a conservative may have been easier and more common when Kennedy attended Burke.
And when Kennedy continues talking, it all makes sense again.
As he discusses Robert Mueller, Kennedy contradicts a letter Mueller sent in which he criticized Attorney General William Barr for not fully capturing the “context and substance of [Mueller’s] office’s work and conclusions,” pinning the problem on the media representation.
When asked to contrast the rhetoric in Trump’s first campaign speech during which he called Mexicans who immigrated illegally rapists who brought drugs and crime to what he learned about diversity at Burke, Kennedy spins effortlessly.
“He was talking about a broken immigration system allowing crimes in this country that were preventable.”
When the subject turns to the president’s comments after the riots in Charlottesville in August 2017 during which Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” in a showdown that pitted members of the far right, including white nationalists, against counter protesters, Kennedy quickly rushes to support the president.
“This is a guy whose daughter converted to Judaism, who has African Americans, women, Jews — myself included — in high office of this administration. The idea that he’s encouraging white nationalism is the worst sort of demonizing somebody if you disagree with them.”
When asked about how Trump will win 2020, he rattles off a laundry list of accomplishments immediately.
“A booming economy, strength at our border. America isn’t being taken advantage of abroad. This is a guy who follows through on what he says.”
Kennedy has done these sorts of interviews before, defending the White House with ease and attacking the left with vitriol.
There was no one article or moment that shifted his views to line up directly with Trump’s — and while he “was taken by surprise” by Trump’s campaign, he liked his “very conservative, Republican message from the outset.”
“I don’t think it was hard for me to believe in his candidacy,” he says.
Perhaps it’s just that Kennedy never embraced the curriculum Burke stresses so heavily — he can muster that Burke taught him to “understand people based not on first impressions” — but didn’t want or need more.
“I didn’t look to Burke to guide my political philosophy. I don’t think a school should guide one’s political philosophy — I think an individual should come to their own,” he notes with some disdain after Charlottesville comes up.
Kennedy isn’t at all surprised to hear Trump isn’t the most popular figure at Burke — “pick me up off the floor, shocked,” he says sarcastically in response. He also understands his job might not go over all that well at his alma mater or with the teachers whose classes he took.
“I sometimes think about what one of my friends will think or say to me when I see them or talk to them next. No teachers. I do wonder what some of them might think about what I do.”
But Kennedy says he doesn’t even want to “hazard a guess” as to what they might think.
“I can imagine it would be disappointing for teachers or people I went to class with to know they had taught somebody who worked for an administration or a person they dislike so strongly. People have a visceral reaction to this administration.”
Then again, aside from the “small ecosystem of thought” and the fact that he “wouldn’t have been a big fan of any high school,” Kennedy says he liked Burke for his friends and teachers, though he paints his time as a small influence on his way to the White House.
He does mention one benefit, though: he says he often has a decent idea of what Democrats will say about his administration’s policies partly because he “grew up so much around them.”
But he has little to offer to Burke students to convince them to support Trump aside from the fact that when he says something, he “commits to it” along with warning liberal students that “good intentions can lead down very dark roads.”
At this point, Kennedy’s future is unclear — it depends largely upon the 2020 election. He says he loves his job, and is unwilling to name his dream job.
Really, there is no neat conclusion of Burke’s role in this story other than that it didn’t really seem to play one: Kennedy is a lifelong conservative who felt following Trump was a logical step. He is almost certainly the most politically powerful graduate the school has ever produced, but the school likely won’t advertise his tenure at Burke any time soon, Panush says.
“It’s quite an achievement,” he says. “But that particular office within the Trump administration is so morally suspect that it’s very difficult to imagine that’s something that we’d be proud of. I don’t know what he does as an individual in the Trump administration, but that particular office,
I doubt it.”
So, the two entities move on separately: Kennedy will go on the radio to pitch the Trump administration’s latest policies, and Burke will keep on without him — but don’t expect either to mention the other all that much.