Things stuck in my craw

As far back as I can remember I had an affinity for John F Kennedy. He was president when I was born. I was sitting in a high chair when my parents heard he had died, tragically. Later, in 7th grade, I made a shrinky-dink pendant with his face on it (I also made a Roosevelt one for my mom and a Wilson one for my Grandma).


A few weeks ago Barbara Walters and the ladies of The View interviewed Mimi Alford, author of Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath. Ms Alford was a 19 year-old White House intern in 1962 when she was seduced by President Kennedy. Barbara Walters chided Ms Alford for coming out with her story, worried about the effect it could have on Caroline Kennedy, the President’s only living child (I say “child,” but obviously she’s now grown). Barbara also chided Ms Alford for making money off her book and from her experience with a public figure.

What Barbara Walters failed to remember before deciding to figuratively wag her finger is that in her own 2008 autobiography (which presumably she wanted to profit from) she revealed her own affair with the married Senator Edward Brook (R-MA).

I wonder how much thought Barbara gave to her story’s effects on the Senator and his family.


Ms Alford reveals in her book that not only did she have an 18-month affair with JFK (reportedly beginning on her 4th day on the job, in Jacqueline Kennedy’s bedroom), but also that Kennedy once asked her to fellate a White House staffer while they were all in the White House swimming pool.

It was a dare, but I knew exactly what he meant. This was a challenge to give Dave Powers oral sex. I don’t think the President thought I’d do it, but I’m ashamed to say that I did. It was a pathetic, sordid scene, and is very hard for me to think about today. Dave was jolly and obedient as I stood in the shallow end of the pool and performed my duties. The President silently watched.

This part bothers me even more than the affair/cheating part, or even JFK using his considerable power to take Alford’s virginity. Does it bother you, as well?

I had to figure out why this stuck in my craw.

And this is what I’ve come up with: In the pool episode, the President’s actions became not just about sex, a universal human drive (no, I’m not excusing President Clinton or Governor Schwarzenegger or Tiger Woods or Ashton Kutcher or…) but about power. About authority. About Kennedy’s absolute misuse of power and authority.

I began to think in terms of a power imbalance. Is this a fair comparison, in terms of the gap between the former and the latter in each case?

a 17 year-old student   and   her 45 year-old male teacher


a 19 year-old intern   and   The President of the United States

One could argue that despite the fact that the 19 year-old is of adult age, she would be even more overpowered by THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES than a 17 year-old would be by a teacher. Yet we call the first a sexual predator annnnnnnd…….we revere the second.


What if such a book had come out about Nixon or Ford or Carter or one of the Bushes? They all seem too bumbly or boring for such salacious buzz. But if it had, what would the public’s reaction be? Would a legacy be tarnished?

None of them (knock wood) have had the reputation-polishing fortune of serious misfortune. When someone has been victimized (read: murdered), perhaps we forgive them foibles we otherwise might not.

What do you think explains the fact that JFK’s reputation has not been marred — his good looks, his horrific death, his beloved family, the time that has passed, or something else? Are you bothered by the book’s allegations? Does it change what you think of Kennedy and his presidency?

7 thoughts on “Things stuck in my craw”

  1. I think the whole thing is disgusting and deplorable. Honestly, since JFK was before my time, I don’t have a strong opinion of him — there isn’t much to “change” in my mind. I think that for the country overall, because he was so gorgeous and young and charming and from a great family (as opposed to a crotchety old grump) that people feel less outraged by it. Almost like, “Who wouldn’t want to have an affair with JFK?” Sad, but true. And maybe I’m wrong about that, just a guess.

  2. Interesting post. I still remember the day Kennedy died. My dad, an outspoken Republican, had picked me up from ballet class and he was visibly shaken up; one of the few times I had ever seen him that way. He said that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I don’t think I even knew at the time even what that word meant.

    Not too many years ago, I was asking my older brother why I didn’t know anything as a kid about Martin Luther King. Growing up in a predominately white community, we weren’t learning about his impressive accomplishments yet in school. My brother’s answer was disturbing, “Oh, that was because mom and dad thought Martin Luther King was a womanizer.” Like with Barbara Walters, it seems to be a case of selective memory.

  3. I totally see what you’re saying, but my guess is that Barbara Walters considers it different because no one bought her book just to read about that affair, whereas the affair is the only offering and only appeal of this book.

    None of this surprises me. If JFK had remained faithful, given his affluence and upbringing grooming him for greatness and era and looks and charisma, THAT would be shocking.

  4. I don’t know – it seems that as long as I can remember, I’ve known that JFK was a womanizer. And every last politician is in the game to exercise power. So, does this surprise me? No. Is it disappointing? Yes. But the presidents usually have a very different upbringing than I do. Most are wealthy and powerful and used to getting what they want without any sort of crisis of conscience. You can find all kinds of stories about all of them – I mean, look at Thomas Jefferson. Revered as a great statesman, a founder of our country…and a man who created offspring with his slave/servant.

    I guess I’m just a cynic…

  5. I think my respect of politicians is always limited to their work on the job vs. who they are as a person. Okay, maybe not all politicians, but most. And I think that’s true for me about actors and musicians, etc.

    I think you are spot on about it being about power vs. being about sex.

    This reminds me of Knut Hamsun — he won the Nobel Prize in Literature and is one of the fathers of modernism. We wouldn’t have the antihero without him. His books are amazing. BUT he was also a Nazi sympathizer. He helped the Quisling government sell Norway’s Jewish population. No one really knows what to think of him — do you throw out all his literary work just because he was a crap person in his day-to-day life? Or do you hold the two separate?

    I personally am someone who has taught Hamsun and feel comfortable doing so. I know others won’t teach him. I think he was probably a crap human being who was a product of his environment and many extenuating factors but that doesn’t excuse his actions. It just explains them. And I think that same environment and same extenuating factors is what made him such a fantastic writer.

    You’ve given me a lot to think about as I make dinner.

  6. I didn’t have much of an opinion of Kennedy either way (grew up far away from the US), but I do take issue with tell-all books about public figures who have died. Publically smearing the reputation of a person who is unable to defend themselves leaves me cold. Granted, JFK was no angel, but I’ve no doubt after I’m dead and buried, someone could string together some things I did or said during my lifetime and make me look like an awful person…and I’d have no recourse to say “yes, I said or did this, but here was the situation” – or even “no, absolutely I did not challenge someone to blow someone else in a pool”. The motivation is almost always money, so I daresay the more salacious the claim, the more books sold, which begs the question about how absolutely true the stories are. I think tell-all books speak more to the character of the author than the subject.

  7. Like Sunny, JFK was before my time. And like A, I’m also a cynic. I think most politicians are corrupt one way or another. There must be something about power that makes people feel infallible.

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