WITH Bill Clinton possibly facing a humiliating court appearance to defend his name against allegations of sexual harassment, and his alleged former mistress, Gennifer Flowers, looking to cash in on the pre-trial publicity by selling tapes of their conversations, one question is increasingly asked: how did President Kennedy get away with being both president and promiscuous?
John F Kennedy was addicted to sex. His short spell in office, romantically dubbed 'the thousand days', is almost as noteworthy for its 'thousand nights'. He suffered from an acute case of satyriasis and lacked all self-restraint. He celebrated the success of his spellbinding inaugural address by seducing a leading Hollywood actress and bedded scores of women thereafter.
Nor does the scandal end there. One of Kennedy's girlfriends, Judith Exner, was used to pass classified CIA plans for the assassination of Fidel Castro to Chicago mafia boss Sam Giancana, while another shared a joint of marijuana with the president, having been promised that cocaine was readily available if she preferred.
One key to Kennedy's immunity was his relationship with the press. A good-looking war hero from a good- looking family with a good-looking wife, he was almost bound to be feted. Having come within a whisker of winning the vice-presidential nomination at the 1956 Democratic Convention, he became a media star virtually overnight - and the honeymoon never ended.
He was always more comfortable in the company of journalists. As a candidate, he would drink late into the night with reporters; as president, he dined with Washington's journalistic elite - the Alsops, the Grahams and the Bradlees. He rarely turned down requests for interviews. While it is almost inconceivable that journalists were unaware of his womanising, Kennedy had built up enough goodwill among editors to ensure it was discreetly overlooked. When national newspapers were sent photographs allegedly showing Kennedy leaving the apartment building of one of his mistresses, for instance, the story was buried.
Kennedy was also fortunate that the Sixties were different times. Then, journalists acknowledged the separateness of a politician's private and public life. Few in the Washington press corps questioned the role of Martin Luther King in spearheading the struggle for black equality, for example, yet rumours of his promiscuity were widespread long before his death in 1968. Towards Kennedy the press were even more forgiving. For them, Kennedy - whose lofty rhetoric inspired a nation used to the soporific leadership of Dwight Eisenhower - was proof that being a lousy husband did not necessarily make you a lousy president. That helps to explain why Bill Clinton tries hard to invoke Kennedy's memory.
Kennedy was lucky that no 'smoking bimbo' appeared to derail his presidency. Judith Exner waited until 1977 to expose their affair and Marilyn Monroe died without ever discussing her relationship with the Kennedy brothers. Even female journalists who were subject to unsolicited advances kept them secret. One night at a White House banquet, for instance, Kennedy invited a young female reporter into the Oval Office, where he allegedly lifted her skirt and pushed her on to the sofa. The story was never reported.
Kennedy could also rely on the loyalty, right until her death last week, of his long-suffering wife, Jacqueline. Despite repeated claims that her husband's affairs nearly led to a separation, she stood by her man. Rumours that Joe Kennedy, the overbearing patriarch, offered her a cash payment of dollars 1m were never denied, and the truth about the marriage will remain untold until the taped interviews with Jackie, kept by the Kennedy Library in Boston, are finally released to the public. But that could be years away. The same discretion was exercised by J Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, who kept a private dossier on Kennedy's philandering.
That Kennedy's sexual misdemeanors did not surface during his presidency also says much about American society at the time and the role of the president within it. After the Second World War, the United States self-confidently proclaimed its leadership of the 'free world', yet remained a nation where individual rights were narrowly defined. In the states of the old Confederacy, blacks were routinely denied the right to vote or share eating, sleeping and toilet facilities with whites. In the Fifties, academics had to sign loyalty affidavits, pledging they were not Communist sympathisers. Voices within what there was of a women's movement struggled to be heard, and student radicalism was almost a contradiction in terms. The country's culture and polity reflected the values of Middle America.
While Kennedy's youth and rhetoric implied a radical departure in national leadership, he was disinclined as president to challenge the unspoken assumptions of the post-war era, chief among which was a dismissive attitude towards women in society. Within this cultural and intellectual environment, Kennedy could escape criticism for failing to appoint a woman to the Cabinet. Gender politics weren't an issue.
This was also a period in American history when the office of president, at that time unsullied by the Vietnam war or the disgrace of Watergate, earned extraordinary power and respect. While it is difficult to believe now, Kennedy was not a particularly popular presidential candidate - he beat Richard Nixon by the narrowest of margins - but as soon as he became president he immediately gained stature because of the authority of his office. Unfortunately for Clinton, the esteem in which presidents are held by the public has rapidly diminished.
The irony is that public opinion polls still testify to Kennedy's enduring popularity. That suggests that Americans are prepared to overlook assorted shenanigans, so long as their leaders compensate in other ways. That could offer Bill Clinton a useful lesson. He may be dragged before a court and face humiliation; he may even have his testicles examined and photographed. But he may get away with it, so long as he can convince the American public that his presidency is worth saving. Most Americans seem ready to accept that boys will be boys - or perhaps presidents will be presidents.
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