The sordid staining of Camelot

KARL DU FRESNE - MY VIEW
Last updated 11:49 29/02/2012

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My View - Karl du Fresne

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OPINION: When the first accounts started seeping out decades ago about United States president John F Kennedy's philandering, they scarcely seemed credible.

The world had unquestioningly bought into the fairytale portrayal of the White House during the Kennedy years as a latter-day Camelot occupied by a dashing, charismatic young president, his coolly elegant wife and their photogenic children.

It was an era when a respectful news media didn't pry into the private lives of politicians, least of all the president. It was only after Richard Nixon and the disgrace of Watergate that American journalists decided presidents could be deeply flawed human beings, like the rest of us, and no longer entitled to be immune from scrutiny.

Coincidentally, it was at about that same time that the media began carrying accounts of JFK's clandestine love life. These stories were so much at odds with his popular image as the devoted Catholic husband and father that at first, many people were inclined to dismiss them as scurrilous libels.

But as the reports multiplied, the truth about Kennedy's compulsive philandering became impossible to ignore.

It was common knowledge among Kennedy's aides and Secret Service minders that he had a ravenous sexual appetite. Marilyn Monroe and Judith Exner, the mistress of Mafia boss Sam Giancana, were supposedly among his conquests.

All this information trickled out in instalments long after Kennedy's death as his former associates came forward with stories of his dalliances.

Yet even after all that, the recently published memoirs of one Mimi Alford provide an astonishing new insight into Kennedy's predatory behaviour.

Alford was recruited from an exclusive Boston girls' school to work as an intern at the White House in 1962.

Just 19, she was a virgin, but she wasn't to remain one for long. Kennedy had sex with her on her fourth day in the job.

It happened in Jackie Kennedy's bedroom after Kennedy offered to show Alford around the White House. Judging by her account, it was perilously close to rape: she didn't resist, but neither was she given much opportunity to consent.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this encounter, if it happened as Alford describes, is the sheer, brazen audacity of it.

Clearly, Kennedy was supremely confident that he could force himself, in effect, on a vulnerable young woman – and in his wife's bedroom – and get away with it.

That to me suggests not just a rampant sexual appetite (Kennedy reportedly once told British prime minister Harold McMillan that he suffered headaches if he went without sex), but massive hubris and a huge sense of entitlement. This may have been the product of his upbringing in a wealthy, privileged household headed by a father infamous for his ruthlessness, greed and ambition.

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The other significant aspect of the incident in Jackie Kennedy's boudoir is that it seems to have been immaterial to Kennedy whether his partner got any pleasure from the sexual act. That's consistent with my amateur psychologist's theory that he simply felt entitled to take whatever he wanted.

Interestingly, JFK's nephew Christopher Kennedy Lawford, interviewed at the weekend by Kim Hill (though not in connection with Alford's disclosures), referred to that generation of Kennedy men as being misogynists – haters of women. Certainly the record indicates they cynically used the women in their lives.

To be fair, Alford's account shows that she subsequently entered willingly into a continuing sexual relationship with Kennedy. Not surprisingly, she was hugely flattered by the attention of the most powerful man on Earth.

A peculiar aspect of the affair was that he never kissed her, which seems to suggest (I'm playing the amateur psychologist again here) a fear of emotional intimacy. I mean, how can anyone carry on a sexual relationship without kissing? It doesn't seem natural.

Alford also saw a much darker side to Kennedy's personality when he prompted her to give oral sex to his loyal aide Dave Powers when the three were together in the White House swimming pool.

Again, you get a sense here of a manipulative man enjoying his power over others. Alford called it callous and unforgivable.

Kennedy later tried to persuade her to do the same with his younger brother, Ted, but by that time she had the confidence to refuse.

That Alford fell under Kennedy's spell is hardly surprising. Powerful men have always attracted women. Henry Kissinger, an adviser to Nixon, famously described power as the ultimate aphrodisiac.

In the case of Kennedy, it wasn't just power that made him attractive, but good looks and the force of his personality as well.

The picture Alford paints of Kennedy adds yet another dimension to one of the most complex personalities of the 20th century.

It's a tale that can only further stain his already tarnished image.

- Manawatu Standard

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