Saturday, February 11, 2012

Thoughts on the JFK intern “controversy”

It seems that the public’s fascination with all-things Kennedy is in no danger of fading away. Between mini-series, conspiracy theories about President Kennedy’s assassination, and various books, the family is still in the news – even though their political influence has waned. The latest news concerns a book written by Mimi Alford, who had an 18 month liaison with President Kennedy.

A disclaimer: I have not yet read Once upon a Secret, although I’ve watched extensive news coverage and excerpts from the book. I also remember the reference to her in Robert Dallek’s superb biography of Kennedy. Personally, I don’t think these revelations amount to much of a controversy. It’s been known for decades that the marriage between John and Jacqueline Kennedy was not particularly faithful.

The relationship between the President and Mimi Beardsley – as she was then known – was certainly not a love affair. Yet, based on Alford’s recounting of several incidents between them, it became more than just a sexual liaison. Kennedy seemed genuinely interested in her life, and confided to her his fears during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and wept in her presence while reading condolence letters following the death of his infant son, Patrick. To use modern parlance, they were “friends with benefits” although given the disparity between their ages and job titles, it was a very unbalanced friendship.

It’s clear from various interviews that Alford doesn’t feel she was psychologically damaged by her relationship with President Kennedy. Rather, it was the need to keep it a secret that was destructive to her later in life. The demand for secrecy started with the affair itself – but the events of November 22, 1963 brought things into stark relief. When she learned of President Kennedy’s assassination, Alford broke down in front of her fiancé, Tony. When Tony questioned her for being upset, Mimi confessed to the affair. She relates that Tony’s reaction to the news was “violently explosive”, and included a threat that she was never to mention the affair to anyone. At that point, Mimi shut down emotionally, entering into a two decades long unhappy marriage.

I don’t endorse the actions of JFK or of Mimi during the 18 months of their affair. I merely accept that it happened. I also understand the loneliness, soul-destroying nature of secrecy – for I hid a secret from my parents and family for years before coming forward with it.

Contemplate the incident with Mimi and her fiancé in November, 1963, where she told him “I had an affair with the President” or words to that effect. But substitute the words “I’m gay” and replace the listening fiancé with listening parents. Even today, parents commonly react to news of a child’s (even an adult child’s) homosexuality in much the same way Mimi’s fiancé reacted to news of her affair. Some even send their children to indoctrination camps to “pray the gay away”.

People are the products of their upbringing and life experience. JFK’s upbringing was as the child of a very wealthy and tyrannical father. He wanted for nothing in the material sense – but his father’s presence loomed above him. He knew of his father’s relentless pursuit of women, and was part of a competitive family. Before World War II, JFK was already known as something of a skirt-chaser. Then, JFK enlisted in the Navy – using his family’s position to pull strings even though his bad back disqualified him (think of how many use connections to avoid military service). Looking one’s own death straight in the eye is the very definition of a life-altering experience. It is an entirely different matter than dealing with the death of a loved one. JFK faced his own death twice: in 1943, when his PT boat was rammed by a Japanese Destroyer, and in 1954, when he was given Last Rites following back surgery. Many who face their own death in this way emerge with an intense need to live each moment as if it were their last.

Historian Robert Dallek has stated that he’s astounded by some of the seamier information in Alford’s book, particularly the allegation that JFK asked Mimi to perform oral sex on aide Dave Powers (which she did, while JFK watched – he later apologized) and Edward Kennedy (she refused that time). Dallek’s astonishment comes from the dichotomy between JFK’s personal behavior and his obvious intellect – along with the measured, sober decisions he made as President. But as I’ve read history, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no correlation between private morality and public leadership. Despite the tale of the Cherry Tree, George Washington told lies – he also married for money and his false teeth were not made of wood – they came from his slaves’ mouths. Thomas Jefferson slept with his slave – who was also his wife’s half-sister. No one serious has ever questioned Washington’s or Jefferson’s capacities as leaders. James Buchanan and George W. Bush, on the other hand, were both lousy Presidents – not because one was a closeted homosexual and the other a dry drunk, but because one fiddled away while the Union disintegrated and the other misled America into a needless war that killed thousands of our soldiers. That’s why, in my own ranking of our nation’s chief executives, I don’t include private conduct. Thus, I rate JFK very high on the list. JFK’s domestic policies included starting an economic revival that endured several years beyond his death, moving America toward a broader embrace of Civil Rights, balancing strength and conciliation in handling the Cold War, and pursuing scientific advancement in launching us on our quest to land on the Moon. He was certainly the better alternative in 1960 than his opponent, Richard Nixon – a pathologically dishonest, secretive man who was nevertheless faithful to his wife, and who had no known sexual compulsions.

Secrets destroy the soul, and often radiate fallout far beyond the initial protagonists. That’s the lesson of the JFK-Mimi story.