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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The history of interns and fellatio in the White House

Book out today.
I have never been among those who are given to  adoration of John F. Kennedy.  Or any other president, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.  I may approve of their political actions and admire their intelligence, but have reservations about certain aspects of their lives.   It was so with John Kennedy.  Like a friend on Pine Ridge, I found the entire myth of Camelot in America an embrace of medieval pageantry that contradicted what America was founded to be and wanted to become.  My Pine Ridge friend asks if one can point out what relevance King Arthur, knights in shining armor, and damsels in castle towers could have for Indians other than to identify the source of their oppression.  The same question can be asked by any American whose family history emerges from the "huddled masses." 

My occupation put me in a situation in which I knew about things going on during the Kennedy years.  I was a section editor for a newspaper, and within days after the assassination of President Kennedy, I was in Chicago with a large gathering of other editors and reporters for major newspapers.  In those years, the day after Thanksgiving was the start of two huge  events of importance to rural America that took place in Chicago each year:  the National 4-H Club Congress and the International Livestock Show.  Farm editors and writers came to cover those  events and spent a hectic and exhausting week running back and forth between the Conrad Hilton Hotel and the International Amphitheater, filing stories and photos to their home publications.

The refuge from the frantic was the press  room at the International Livestock Show.  There was a free bar there and a lavish buffet sponsored by the Meat Board.   The lunches were not to be missed, but it was also a place where one could take a break over a cup of coffee and chat with ones colleagues from news organizations throughout the nation.  In 1963, much of the talk was about the assassination of the President and the kind of life he lived.  Many of the reporters had Washington assignments at times and knew the White House press corps.  Some of them had contact with the Kennedys in various contexts and had personal experiences to relate.  But something that the conversation kept coming back to was John Kennedy's extra-curricular affairs with women and the fact that so many people knew about them.  The White House made little effort to keep them discreet, and the press knew about them and could name times, places, and names.  

A news service photographer I came to know quite well had White House credentials which were revoked.  They were revoked because he took and published a picture of Jackie Kennedy at a banquet with a cigarette in her hand.  Photographers had been warned never to do that, but my friend managed to get an unusually good shot and forgot about the prohibition as he put the photo on the wires.  The next time he showed up for a White House assignment, he was informed that he no longer had credentials and was refused entry.  

He said he  was not surprised.  He called Jackie Kennedy a super-bourgeois bitch who spent much time venting her ire and revenge on people who did not show her a groveling deference.  Few of his encounters with her were pleasant, as she instructed the press on how she wanted her image presented.

Another reporter, who had worked in Boston, claimed that when a Boston newspaper did not support Kennedy in his run for the Senate, his father bought the newspaper.  And another told a story of a photo opportunity in the White House with a physically and mentally challenged person and the President seemed to register some distaste in posing for it. 

I hasten to stress that these conversations did not reflect disapproval or approval of the Kennedys.  They simply reflected the facts of life that reporters lived with.  The real significance is that the press did not mention President Kennedy's dalliances.  At the time, publishing such stories would have offended the readers to the point of cancelling subscriptions.  Thirty-five years later when Bill Clinton dallied with Monica Lewinsky, reporters could not wait to get the stories in print and readers could not wait to read them. 

The press in my time was cynical and skeptical about people who held power.  We kept our reporting focused their official jobs, not on their extra-curricular activities.  As I said, the big reason was that tabloid-like stories were not permissible in family newspapers at the time.  There was also quite a different attitude about how far one should probe into a person's private life, whether a public figure or not.  A different standard was applied to the right to privacy than is today.  

The news media did not set the rules but reflected the standards held by the general public.  Today while anything goes on the national stage, quite different standards apply at the regional level.  I have been told of dalliances involving state officials, including names, dates, and places, but never a hint of them has been broached by the South Dakota news media.  As I say, people of power are allowed to operate by different standards than the rest of us.  As a business reporter, I knew some CEOs and corporate officials who were incorrigible reprobates.  The most perfidious person I have ever known was a university president.  However, the press never felt compelled, and for the most part still doesn't, to inform the public of the kind of people they are, even though they control much of what goes on in public.

Mimi Alford and her paramour.
Today is the release date for a book by a young White House intern who, at the age of 19, had an affair with John Kennedy.  It is Once Upon a Secret:  My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and It's Aftermath, by Mimi Alford.  It will revive many of those questions that the reporters in the press room at the International Livestock Show were discussing in 1963.  It will raise the question about why some very powerful and attractive people are given license, and others are condemned for the happenstance of their birth.  

Today's press is still very selective about whose personal lives it chooses to intrude upon.   I, for one, do not enjoy reading about personal betrayals inside families.  On the other hand, some basic issues of character about leaders that we should know are revealed.  But the character that is revealed the most is that of the people who dwell on other people's lapses and flaws of character.  And that seems to be a majority today.  

A New York Times book review link. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States