As millions of others, I watched Meredith Vieira's long conversation on NBC-TV Wednesday night (Feb. 8) with Mimi Alford, who had been President John F. Kennedy's mistress during her teenage years while serving as a White House press office intern.
The interview, stimulated by Alford's recent book, rang completely true. I was in and out of the White House during the Kennedy presidency and came over time to know well all members of the JFK inner circle, some of whom would later become friends and colleagues. It was common knowledge at the time that Kennedy was having sex with several female staff members (apparently including Alford), often in the White House swimming pool. I recognized Alford immediately on seeing her in her interview.
Kennedy also seduced, I was told, some of the teenage "Kennedy girls" who traveled with his 1960 presidential campaign and were present at rallies in their special dresses. Frank Sinatra, it was said, also sent starlets and showgirls his way. Kennedy gave a Georgetown town house to a well known female columnist with whom he was involved.
The acknowledgement of his conduct, by those around him, was quite candid. The White House press corps was aware of it but kept silent. Presidents' and other political leaders' personal lives were treated then as being off-limits to media coverage.
Historian Robert Dallek said in the NBC-TV program that his estimation of President Kennedy was diminished by Alford's revelations, which he originally disclosed in his own book several years ago. He was particulary dismayed by JFK's reported solicitations of Alford to have sex with others while he watched.
Should our estimation of JFK be diminished? It should be said, first, that much of the Camelot legend was in fact legend, fed in part by the fact of JFK's assassination as a relatively young man only 1,000 days in office. President Kennedy and his Massachusetts band came to the White House with the generally tough-minded outlook of Boston pols.
Both JFK and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were confirmed Cold Warriors in 1960. Both were wary of too close association with the civil-rights movement then gaining momentum in the South. Yet, once in office, they grew. Kennedy had confrontations with the Soviet Union over the Berlin Wall and in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But he also pursued nuclear arms-control agreements ("We arm to parley," he said).
He supported Senate liberals as they pursued a Civil Rights Act, passed after his death and signed by President Johnson. He got the United States involved in Vietnam but, from the outset of the involvement, began to look for ways to limit and end it. He had a sense of cool and irony about him that made you think that, sooner rather than later, he'd have written the Vietnam venture off as a failed investment.
Despite his womanizing, there was no doubt of his devotion to his family. John F. Kennedy Jr., then 20, spent time as an intern in the Washington, D.C., think tank I headed in the early 1980s and we stayed in touch afterward. He revered his father; his mother had taken great care that he do so.
Some high-level leaders have been sex addicts; others have been straight-arrow family men. There seems to be little correlation between the content of their personal lives and their performances in office. I would far prefer a JFK, for example, to later Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, about whom there never were rumors of philandering. Interestingly, both President Barack Obama and his principal 2012 Republican challenger, former Masschusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are known as faithful husbands and good fathers. Voters, over time, have seemed not to care greatly about elected officials' personal lives, mainly being interested in how they did their public jobs.
JFK's womanizing was not something to admire. But it should be separated from his performance in office. There he showed intelligence, critical faculties, and potential for large leadership until he was gunned down before his time.