The new memoir by Mimi Alford, the former White House intern whom President Kennedy made his sex toy (though not his only one), hardly comes as a surprise to anyone who didn’t accept the fabricated, idealized version of JFK sold to the public by the likes of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Chris Matthews. Still, her account of Kennedy’s revolting conduct is infuriating, because it continues his corruption of American ethics and leadership standards, the real legacy of his presidency.
Kennedy was a thoroughly fraudulent human being, a cynical and arrogant leader who used soaring prose about freedom, aspiration and the human spirit while masquerading as a devoted father and husband, betraying his wife, abusing his power for selfish personal gratification, and in the process, putting his country at risk during the height of the Cold War. Only moral luck, combined with the failure of a complicit media to tell the public what they really had a right to know—that their President was a sexist, reckless, ruthless, SOB—allowed Kennedy to escape with his myth intact long enough to be regarded as a heroic figure. Now, as the truth relentlessly emerges, the product of his devoted image-makers collides with the ugliness of JFK’s behavior, creating cognitive dissonance of the most destructive sort. After all, if the great John F. Kennedy abused drugs in the White House, used his office and power to lure employees into illicit sexual relationships, degraded and pimped-out women devoted to him, and did all of this with the full knowledge that it would bring down his administration and his party if anyone ever revealed his secrets, then this must mean that character doesn’t matter in our leaders, that we should tolerate a wide range of misconduct, and that the abuse of the power of the President is just a traditional perk.
Bill Clinton made full use of what was already known about Kennedy’s three years in office as a staple of his defense during the Lewinsky scandal; how he must wish Alford had spilled her beans 15 years earlier! For each occupant of the Oval Office enhances, degrades, expands, shrinks, burnishes or stains the Presidency with their conduct while in it, and the lingering effects of their acts changes the influence, prestige and expectations for each successor.
Jack Kennedy, unique among the Presidents, continues to degrade the office a half-century after his death. He makes each American who continues to admire him a little more corrupt—more tolerant of lies, more accepting of arrogance, more willing to see power abused—as time goes by. John Edwards was often called “Kennedyesque” during his rise to prominence; is it any wonder that he believed he could hide a mistress and a love-child from the American people and still get elected President? Everything John Edwards did to make himself “the most hated man in America” was something that Jack Kennedy either did or would have done, except that Kennedy never got caught. His character provides and audacity to aspiring national leaders like Edwards, by blackening the definition of “presidential.”
It is a rare leader who can make future leaders of his nation less trustworthy, but John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the undead of bad role models, continues to do it.