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JFK Revisited

A noted historian and Kennedy Administration insider refutes the revisionist version of JFK's legacy.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 2)

There is more to the Giancana story. In the course of the 1960 campaign, Frank Sinatra, a pal of Giancana's, introduced John Kennedy to an attractive young woman named Judith Campbell. Though her later claims were contradictory and her story escalates with each telling, it seems that their affair extended into his presidency. She also had an affair with Giancana. How much did she tell Giancana about Kennedy? Did the Mafia have the power to blackmail the president?

If Giancana ever had anything on the president, it did not save him from Robert Kennedy's crusade against organized crime. Had Giancana really made that mythical secret deal with Joseph P. Kennedy, he would certainly have used it on his own behalf when the feds were hot on his trail. Instead, his future was round-the-clock FBI surveillance, federal indictments and a year in prison.

A question remains about JFK and women. His sexual waywardness does not constitute John Kennedy's finest hour. But exaggeration is possible. Some today believe that there was an unending procession of bimbos through Kennedy's White House and that the Washington press corps covered up for Kennedy because newspapermen liked him and because, under the civilized rules of the day, a politician's private life was considered his own business.

Vague rumors about JFK did waft about Washington from time to time, but, as one who worked in the White House, I never saw anything untoward. Kennedy was ahard-working fellow, concentrating intently on the problems at hand. At no point in my experience did his preoccupation with women (apart from Caroline crawling around the Oval Office) interfere with his conduct of the public business.

Lest this ignorance be attributed to the invincible innocence of a college professor, let me call another witness, that hard-bitten reporter, Ben Bradlee, then head of the Newsweek bureau in Washington, in later years the brilliant editor of The Washington Post. Bradlee was not only at the center of Washington news gathering; he was also Kennedy's closest friend in the press. "It is now accepted history," Bradlee writes in his 1995 memoir, A Good Life, "that Kennedy jumped casually from bed to bed with a wide variety of women. It was not accepted history then...[I was] unaware of this proclivity during his lifetime."

Who can really know about anyone else's sex life? Unless one of the partners talks, or compromising letters turn up, or a third person is in the bedroom (an unlikely circumstance), no one can be certain what may have gone on between consenting adults--which does not prevent sensation-mongers writing with sublime certitude about the private lives of famous people.

Nor can outsiders ever pronounce on the inwardness of a marriage. My own impression, shared by others from the Kennedy White House, is that JFK, for all his adventures, always regarded Jacqueline with genuine affection and pride. Their marriage never seemed more solid than in the later months of 1963.

The argument is made that recklessness in private life leads to recklessness in public affairs. But history shows no connection between private morality and public conduct. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, had wayward sexual habits but was all the same a tremendous moral force for his people and his nation. On the other hand, Pol Pot of Cambodia was apparently a faithful family man. All he did was murder hundreds of thousands of his countrymen.

There is much merit in a suggestion made during the 1884 presidential election. Grover Cleveland, a reform mayor of Buffalo and reform governor of New York, was exposed as the father of an illegitimate child, while his opponent, James G. Blaine, though complicit in a railroad scandal--the once-notorious Mulligan letters--was a devoted family man and devout churchgoer. "We are told," said one commentator, "that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity, but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn."

In Kennedy's case, the argument that private recklessness leads to public recklessness is invoked to explain the Bay of Pigs and the CIA assassination plots against Fidel Castro. But these were initiatives of the Eisenhower administration, not of the Kennedy administration, and no one has accused Ike of a reckless private life, at least since the Second World War.

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