The memoir of Mimi Alford, in which she details her affair as a White House intern with President John F. Kennedy, reopens an intriguing question about that president. I am one who thinks he was a talented president who would probably not have made the errors his successor did in Indochina.
President Kennedy, as Richard Nixon said at the time, did hand over Laos to "communism on the installment plan" in 1962 and confirm its status as the Ho Chi Minh Trail superhighway for the invasion of South Vietnam by the North. But having done so, and with his experience of the failings of judgment of the joint chiefs in the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, he would probably have been more cautious than President Johnson was about plunging into that conflict.
President Kennedy showed superior intuition in the Cuba Missile Crisis of 1962, when he rightly suspected that U.S. intelligence did not have the whole story. Contrary to the relentlessly peddled fable of a strategic triumph achieved through a critical path of scientifically calibrated response, leading to the rubbish about the "Best and the Brightest," (who gave us Vietnam for an encore), Kennedy traded long-deployed NATO missiles in Greece and Turkey, against the wishes of those countries, for non-deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba and threw in a promise not to invade Cuba.
This was no great victory, but unknown to the CIA, there were 40,000 Russian troops in Cuba, battlefield nuclear weapons in place which could have hit invasion landing sights, and the warheads for the intermediate-range missiles that could have reached the southeastern U.S. were in-country and could be installed very quickly. An invasion of Cuba would have been a much more complicated and dangerous business than the hawks in the president's inner circle who advocated it imagined. Kennedy sensed this and acted prudently.
He was internationally popular, with leaders such as Charles de Gaulle, Harold MacMillan, and Konrad Adenauer, and with the vast public, from West Berlin to Mexico City. And though he came late to the virtues of civil rights and lower taxes, and needed his successor to get these measures through, still he came, and showed the way. They were the most successful public policy initiatives of the 60s. He was a man for his times, cruelly removed from them. In retrospect, the four presidencies of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, 1933-1963, look like something of a golden age of the presidency, like the adoptive Roman emperors of the second century, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.
Kennedy was a charming, interesting, and capable president. The vagaries of his sex life don't have any bearing on his historic standing as a president, but they can raise the eyebrows even of the well-disposed. Americans are by now familiar with the phenomenon of a president being sexually intimate with a teenage female intern in the White House, and JFK's peccadilloes were long ago seen in their rightful dimensions as evidence of satyriasis.
Many of the presidents have had extra-marital arrangements, and some, such as Thomas Jefferson, siring seven children with his comely slave and intimate of 38 years, Sally Hemmings (and the author of the Declaration of Independence didn't get around to emancipating his slaves even in his will), are a good deal more controversial than JFK's antics. No one knows what goes on in someone else's marriage and it is not for others to judge. It is further to President Kennedy's credit that his paramours, allegedly including Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, Judith Campbell Exner (whom he shared with Mafia leader Sam Giancana), and many others, were closed-mouthed adults; all the players, including Ms. Alford and Mrs. Kennedy, behaved with commendable discretion.
But for the president of the U.S. to take this intern around with him, to hide her from view in his car as he went to meet the British prime minister, and to be titillated by inducing her to perform oral sex on one of his aides for his own viewing pleasure, is insalubrious and even neurotic. It is already well-known that he claimed to have headaches if he went without sexual intercourse for more than a day; that he regularly worked that activity into on-job visits, as with Marlene Dietrich (after she told him she had done it with his father); and prepared for the great debates with Richard Nixon in 1960 by being serviced by paid providers rounded up by his entourage a few hours before each debate, (while his diligent opponent poured through the dossiers one last time).
Though it is not optimal, I have no problem with any of this, and at an obvious, if slightly feral level, it is impressive. But telling an intern whose principal function was pleasuring the leader of the country to give head to an aide so the president could become the chief voyeur of the nation, gives me, a JFK admirer through all the years, pause.
Again, this seems not to have affected his performance as president and it is all of a piece of what we know of this strange marriage. (Late on election night, 1960, as the result was uncertain, Jackie drifted into the room and after watching for a couple of minutes, detachedly asked, as if inquiring whether he would be sailing the next day: "Bunny, does this mean that you're the president?")
Dwight Eisenhower's war-time companion, his driver, Kay Summersby, wrote after Ike had died that in their relations, he was practically impotent, a point with which the general's son, John Eisenhower, self-interestedly took issue. There has been intense but unsatisfiable curiosity about the extent of Franklin D. Roosevelt's sexual activity with women other than Eleanor (who was relieved to be done with it) after the onset of his polio in 1921, though the medical record of his continuing sexual capacity is unambiguous. No one will ever know, though his great love, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, claimed to be satisfied after he died that she was the only woman with whom he had had extra-marital sex.
While the glamorous congresswoman and actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, was being pilloried by Congressman Richard Nixon, (after she called him "Tricky Dick"), as "pink down to her underwear" (going with dexterity for the Red Scare and mens' locker room votes in the same swinging stroke), she was living with Senator Lyndon Johnson (the man who would know if Nixon's charge was correct).
The takeaway message is that most of what has been known historically as "the character issue" about presidents and presidential candidates is irrelevant, unless it is a disposition to discard the Constitution and try to rule dictatorially, which no president has attempted. That was the only failing that seriously concerned the principal authors of the Constitution. The attempted impeachments of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton should never have occurred, inept, neurotic, and tawdry, respectively, though the conduct objected to was.
It doesn't matter what the president's sex-life is and public concerns on the subject are rubbish. Nelson Rockefeller was almost defeated running for a third term as governor of New York in 1966 because he had had a divorce and remarried. If Monica Lewinsky had been as discreet as Ms. Alford, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton's and the nation's life would have been simpler and more serene. If Ms. Alford had gone public with JFK's antics and had the corroborative equivalent of the blue dress, she could have ruined his career. The behaviour of our leaders won't become more virtuous, but perhaps the country is becoming more worldly.
And if American public sensibilities are now less fragile on the subject of oral sex, it is a small step forward for the opponents of priggishness and hypocrisy, as most people of age enjoy it, and it is much less complicated, politically and otherwise, than the real thing.