But history has a way of stripping the most hardened patina from the sheen of legendary figures and Kennedy is no exception. What it exposes about the 34th President is less heroic and more recklessly libertine than any of us would care to admit. A cursory examination of both his military and political careers reveals some extraordinarily overlooked facts: that his family’s fortune derived from the shrewdness of a father who was a stock manipulator, bootlegger, appeaser, isolationist, ruthless womanizer and virulent anti-Semite; that JFK’s handling of PT109, a patrol boat that he captained in the Pacific in1942 and was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer, was an act of profound negligence that, had he not been an ambassador’s son, would have led to a court martial and not a decoration; that his Congressional and Senatorial records produce scant evidence of effectiveness or focus and that he spent a great deal of those years on an unending pursuit of women; that he took full credit ( and a Pulitzer Prize in 1957) for a book that was largely ghost written by his aide, Theodore Sorensen; that his first months as President witnessed two catastrophic failures – the poorly planned and disastrously executed Bay of Pigs invasion and the June, 1961 summit in Vienna with Soviet leader Nikolai Khrushchev. His performance in the latter event was so underwhelming that Khrushchev immediately formed an opinion of the “boy President” as weak and vacillating. It emboldened him to authorize the construction of a wall dividing East and West Berlin and to continue secret Soviet deployments of nuclear warheads on Cuban soil. His Cuban policy laid the groundwork for the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 which brought the United States to the brink of a nuclear war.
And then there were the women.
Thanks to an obliging press, there were no sexual scandals during Kennedy’s years in office. But that wasn’t because there was an absence of material. The Camelot idyll of Kennedy as a caring family man, complete with a dazzling wife and two precocious children was of course a mendacious façade. Kennedy reserved little time for either his wife or children and often put his own sexual needs before family and sometimes even before affairs of state. How far he went is still unknown but according to biographer Richard Reeves, the scale of his wantonness was made clear by his first private words uttered after winning the presidency: “ Now I can get as much tail as I want…” In an early meeting with British prime minister Harold Macmillan, he was quite candid about his internal drive for new sexual conquests and in Hollywood his sexual profligacy was well known and catered to by friends such as Frank Sinatra and his brother-in-law Peter Lawford. Perhaps Kennedy was an undiagnosed sex-addict, yet who can readily excuse the indignity of a press-wary President of the United States scrambling over a backyard fence in a Los Angeles suburb after a late night tryst with Marilyn Monroe?
Kennedy’s relationships with Monroe, Angie Dickinson and. Judith Campbell-Exner are well known and have been written about extensively. But it is also known that hundreds of other women from prostitutes to starlets to wives of associates were the beneficiaries of his curious form of presidential patronage. It is remarkable, given the range of his liaisons, that none of this leaked while he was in office. But the Press in those days considered a politician’s personal life out of bounds and were otherwise loathe to taint the reputation of a man they admired. His staff also developed failsafe methods: prostitutes, and many of the young women brought into the White House or whom the President consorted with on the road, were told that if they leaked their stories to the Press, they would be declared mad and locked away in an asylum. He was ably assisted in these cover-ups by his unofficial chief of staff Kenny O’Donnell, who regularly indulged himself in Kennedy cast-offs and by a retinue trained to provide warnings of the First Lady’s imminent approach in the West Wing.
Why should any of this matter today? What good is served by dredging up 50-year-old gossip? It matters because while the general public had little idea of Kennedy’s recklessness, those in the know – the political establishment, the press, and at least two of his successors – said nothing, setting a precedent for acquiescence, duplicity, cover up and moral turpitude that brought shame to the Presidency and Congress in the years to follow. If the President was able to run the White House like a Turkish bordello, what was to stop others doing as exactly as they pleased under similar cover of propriety and executive privilege?
That lesson was not lost on Bill Clinton. Thirty-five years after the assassination, the 42nd President, who had actively modeled his political career on Kennedy’s, was almost impeached by Congress for an attempt to cover up a sexual indiscretion. It is not a stretch to believe that Clinton’s admiration for Kennedy extended to that man’s libidinous excesses and has inspired its emulation, both in and out of office
It is not possible to watch film footage of Kennedy’s assassination today without feeling sorrow for the loss of a vibrant and talented political life. Nor is it easy to cast in a bad light a man in whose being so many hopes once resided and whose memory still inspires such reverence. But as successfully as presidents are able to hide their secret lives from public view while in office, history has a determined way of sweeping away fig leaves, exposing once pristine reputations to public scrutiny. In modern times, our leaders should be judged, not only on their performance in the political arena, but also on the course of their own moral leadership and the example they set for the country. In the end, there can be no moral leadership without the personal moral conduct of the leader. On this score, the presidency of John F. Kennedy was an abject failure. And from Vietnam to Watergate to Monica Lewinsky we are still living with its consequences.
Avi Davis is the Executive Director and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles.