JFK and the White House Women….
I recently had the good fortune to pick up a copy of Robert Dallek’s impressive study of John F. Kennedy for the paltry sum of £1. First published in 2003, John F. Kennedy-An Unfinished Life 1917-1963 is a compelling biography which takes advantage of records later released detailing Kennedy’s health, childhood and time spent in the Oval Office through taped sessions and witness accounts. It is a fair-minded account of a President who, despite his well-documented flaws, became one of the last century’s icon’s both politically and historically.
I am fascinated how time and political allegiance can affect the majority view of history and particularly those of huge power such as the President of the United States. The current incumbent (Trump) of whom I am no fan has been much maligned (quite rightly) for his past conduct towards women, it is classic abuse of power and his suitability for the highest office should have been questioned and dealt with long before he became the presidential candidate.
But far too often those who seek to bring up his past behaviour consistently fail to acknowledge their own Democratic heroes record. Imagine if Trump behaved in office the way Clinton did? Put any political bias to one side and concentrate solely on standards of decency in office, compare it to any senior manager or executive in any other type of profession and ask what would happen to them if they behaved towards women the way Clinton and JFK behaved? it is a question many women from those presidencies deserve to have asked.
Dallek writes: ‘ One response to all the difficulties crowding in on Kennedy was a more frenetic pace of womanising than ever….his knowledge of how close the world might be to a nuclear war only heightened Kennedy’s impulse to live life to the fullest-or with as much private self-indulgence as possible. Truman and Eisenhower, of course, shouldered the same burden without this sort of behaviour’
As Kennedy’s political and personal health problems mounted, so he increasingly sought release from life’s realities with a tryst of lovers including his wife’s own press secretary, Hollywood actresses, prostitutes arranged and paid for by his ‘fixer’ Dave Powers, his close friend Ben Bradlee’s sister-in law, Judith Campbell-Exner with her well-known connections to the Mafia and two White House secretaries known as ‘Fiddle and Faddle’. It’s quite a list.
Dallek tells us how he confided in British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during their 1961 meeting in Bermuda that “if I don’t have a woman every three days, I have a terrible headache”. One cannot imagine a less likely or willing confidant for matters of promiscuous sex than Harold Macmillan. But it signified Kennedy’s erratic behaviour during the most tense period of the entire Cold War. Here was a president who was a decision away from creating a nuclear holocaust high on prescription drugs from three different doctors and taking the most carefree risks with women in flagrant abuse of his status. It was perhaps his well documented affair with the East German Ellen Rometsch, a regular at his naked pool parties which sent his advisors and intelligence chiefs into a state of frenzy and the subsequent payments of thousands of dollars for her silence.
In questioning Kennedy’s ability to focus on crucial situations such as Cuba, Berlin and Vietnam Dallek writes: ‘Did Kennedy’s compulsive womanising distract him from public business? Some historians think so, especially when it comes to Vietnam. Kennedy’s reluctance, however, to focus the sort of attention on Vietnam he gave to Berlin or other foreign and domestic concerns is not evidence of a distracted president, but of a determination to keep Vietnam from becoming more important to his administration than he wished it to be’ That may well be true but there can be no doubt, as the records show, that Kennedy was very active in suppressing any press speculation of his sex life and placed great faith in believing many of the press fraternity liked him enough not to pursue it. In the case of Marilyn Monroe, however, he employed a former New York reporter to talk to press editors on his behalf to nullify the well-known rumours, he had to be sure.
Jackie Kennedy was well aware of her husband’s philandering and was known to make well-timed comments to those around her. Dallek writes: ‘One day, as she escorted a Paris journalist around the White House, she said to him in French, as they walked past ‘Fiddle’ “This is the girl who is supposedly sleeping with my husband” Jackie seemed to have assumed that her remark would not shock a sophisticated Frenchman’. But on the whole she was as complicit as her husband in creating a global myth around the couple which largely worked, Jackie Kennedy chose to accept his affairs in much the same way as her mother-in-law dealt with Joe Kennedy’s behaviour. Never was ‘like father, like son’ more appropriate in an appalling abuse of the sanctity of marriage by a man claiming to be a devout Catholic.
Dallek’s book is a fascinating insight into a man who was consumed by events both past and present, deteriorating health and sex addiction. He was, in many ways, a new light in American politics and public life but he was also a man whose behaviour towards women and in particular his wife, should be remembered and viewed in at least the same disparaging way as that of Trump, Weinstein and any other who thinks that money and power assumes them automatic rights over women. It doesn’t and Kennedy’s legacy should reflect that.