Honest, I’m not picking on the Kennedy’s. That this surfaced today is a coincidence. But if you cross Ted Kennedy and Tiger Woods, you get Jack Kennedy, and what should appear on the web this morning but a surprising photograph:
TMZ, the celebrity trash website that likes to publish paparazzi photos of supermodels with spinach between their teeth, has a genuine scoop: it has gotten its cyber-hands on a photograph that appears to show a bevy of naked women frolicking on a yacht as a young Senator Jack Kennedy lounges nearby. [UPDATE: As explained by The Smoking Gun here, and discussed in a later Ethics Alarms post here, the photo was a hoax. The ethical issues raised by it and discussed below are still valid, however.]The photo almost certainly memorializes a pleasure trip Jack and Ted Kennedy took to the Mediterranean in 1956, while Jacqueline Kennedy was pregnant with Patrick, the son who was eventually still-born.
The website headlines the photo as one “that could have changed history.” They got that right. A photograph like this would probably sink a politician’s career in 2010. In the Fifties, it would have gotten him run out of town on a rail.
The photo doesn’t convey any new information about Jack Kennedy’s character, but hard, photographic evidence of JFK’s compulsive infidelities have been missing. For me, however, it illustrates the difficulty of constructing ethical lessons from history. Kennedy, flaws and all, was a transformative figure and a deeply symbolic one. His lasting appeal is based on his passionate advocacy of ideals, and yet he was spectacularly reckless in risking his work to do things like, well, running around after naked nymphs on a boat while his wife was home nursing a difficult pregnancy. Were we lucky this photograph didn’t fall into Tricky Dick’s clutches during the 1960 presidential campaign? If it was withheld by a journalist at the time, are we grateful? If we are grateful, does it follow that if a similar photos surfaced of, say, Barack Obama during the last campaign, it shouldn’t have mattered, because, after all, JFK got away with these things?
Does the photo simply support the contention that there are no true heroes, that we ought to admire individuals for what they do well, and not hold them to a higher standard in other aspects of their lives—the Tiger Woods argument? Does it prove that we shouldn’t care if our leaders are, in important respects, creeps, as long as they do the job? Is integrity really irrelevant to leadership?
I reject the contention that character is compartmentalized, and that one can be a trustworthy professional and untrustworthy in other aspects of life. Indeed, Jack Kennedy’s life supports me in this, for infidelity was not the only realm where he was profoundly unethical. I believe that leaders of nations, companies, foundations and households have to aspire to ethical conduct, and that a leader who refuses to do that should not, and usually cannot, lead. Nonetheless, the contradictions among the image, the myth, and the reality of Jack Kennedy’s character and deeds challenge these beliefs, as do the lives of other American icons like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
I have studied leadership for decades and it is still full of mysteries.