The Worst President of the 20th Century: Part Two

By Seth Studer

1. “Terrible Headaches”

On or about November 10 1997, the Kennedy legacy changed. Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot appeared on Barnes & Noble table displays across the fruited plains. The sexual promiscuity that added a little heat to the Kennedy aura – you could imagine him picking up girls, laughing with Frank Sinatra in bar, all in a black-and-white photograph – was suddenly an inventory of sleazy details.

Worst of all, if you believed Hersh and his sources, Jack Kennedy was kind of a dick.

Before that, Jack was cool. In 1996, a plurality of Americans reelected a president even though they disapproved of his sexual predilections. In the public mind, I think Clinton’s primary sin was not that he committed adultery but that he had joyless sex with the wrong kind of women and, despite his own glowing opinion of himself, he didn’t seem very self-assured about any of it. He actually winced when you asked him about sex. He didn’t do it right. He didn’t do it with style.

Not like Jack did.

This was the 1990s.
This was the 1990s.

Jack was an athlete; women were like sport. Clinton had an appetite; women were like McDonald’s. Jack was fit. Jack was from the Northeast. Clinton was from Arkansas. (American film and literature has always portrayed Southern sexuality as somehow…off.)

Ever since ’92, Clinton evoked and welcomed comparisons to the previous fortysomething president. Democrats still proudly invoked John F. Kennedy’s memory. What’s more, a generation of Republicans who didn’t cringe at the Kennedy name had arrived. Dan Quayle had confidently compared his record to JFK’s. Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s famous response – “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” – is still hailed as a high point of the Dukakis/Bentsen campaign. In 2013, Bentsen sounds like a supercilious ass: an elder senator who isn’t going to listen to some kid pretend he knows something about Jack Kennedy. “I knew Jack Kennedy,” he says, which only reminded people that Bentsen has been in Congress for forty years. His Texas growl may have evoked memories of Lyndon Johnson: not an association you wanted in 1988 (Johnson’s rehabilitation would come later). Meanwhile, the insanely competent but uncharismatic Michael Dukakis, the man who would be the next president from Massachusetts, didn’t do much to secure the Democrats’ monopoly on Kennedy nostalgia.

Three years later, Oliver Stone’s JFK briefly mainstreamed absurd conspiracies about Kennedy’s assassination. The film actually inspired new legislation: the President John F. Kennedy Records Act of 1992 was signed into law by former CIA director George H.W. Bush (back before he earned the “H.W.”). But the most significant thing about JFK was that it’s not actually about JFK. Aside from the wonderful “Mr. X” scene, Kennedy’s policies are barely discussed. The film followed the oddballs and patsies who stand at the edges of the assassination. The film was about the events following the event. Kennedy wasn’t even the objet petit a (that’s the grassy knoll, or whatever’s behind it). Kennedy the man and Kennedy the president had ascended into symbolism, and were just as pliable.

jfkBy the mid-90s, Republicans were citing Kennedy as a proto-Reagan. He cut taxes, funded the military, preached personal responsibility (“ask not”): if JFK were alive today, he’d be a Republican! Democrats, meanwhile, persisted in giving Kennedy credit for the few good things Lyndon Johnson had done and blamed Johnson for all the bad things Kennedy did.

1996 was maybe the last good year for old-fashioned flannel-jacketed Kennedy nostalgia. A huge swath of the adult population hadn’t even been born when Kennedy was elected, while many aging baby boomers had little more than a strong, adolescent impression of his presidency. These were ideal conditions for distortion, false memories, and mythologizing. JFK was as an avatar in the public imagination, like Marilyn Monroe (whose movies nobody watched) or Elvis Presley (whose music nobody listened to). Americans could compare the avatar to their current president and find the current president wanting. They could compare the glamor and grace of Kennedy’s era to the present, and find the present wanting (a favorite American pastime).

Then The Dark Side of Camelot fell into their laps, and suddenly Jack was sleazy. The conversation inevitably started with the women, and that’s okay: the women are perhaps the most substantive aspect of Kennedy’s presidency. Inga Arvad and Marilyn Monroe – would could blame him? All the mob stuff was kinda sexy. Everyone had heard that Jack slept with Marlene Dietrich after Marlene Dietrich slept with Jack’s dad – that was kind of weird. But y’know, these are things celebrities do. And JFK was the first celebrity president. Wouldn’t you sleep with as many women as possible if you were the most famous, powerful man in the world?

Except that after Hersh, Kennedy wasn’t merely canoodling with glamorous women on a giant, white, oval bed, the presidential seal hanging overhead. After Hersh, Kennedy was a misogynistic lech. He slept with secretaries and interns and journalists, women who were not in any real position to say “no.” He used the White House as a harem for his friends and his brothers: they need only show up and a woman would be procured for them. The 1960 campaign was a template for the forthcoming Beatles and Stones tours: women everywhere, always available. Jack even spent the night before his inauguration one of his steadier girlfriends. And during the campaign, he told a girl that he would divorce Jackie if Nixon won the election (here’s something fun: imagine an inversion of that scene where it’s Nixon instead of Kennedy). Would Jackie consent to a divorce? Well, they certainly weren’t happy. The primary complaint in the Kennedy marriage was Jack’s promiscuity. Once in office, he promised to sleep with other women only when Jackie was not at the White House. Consequently, Jackie spent much of the glamorous Kennedy years outside the White House.

But a misogynistic lech can be an effective president, right? Sure. Except that after Hersh, Jack’s fame, power, and a dehumanizing attitude toward women were no longer adequate excuses for his sex life. After Hersh, the whole question of “excuses” was supplanted by the need for explanations. It’s not that Kennedy was immoral. It’s that something seemed seriously askew in Kennedy’s judgment, maybe even his brain. JFK kind of had a problem.

jfk_mobKennedy took bizarre risks in order to have sexual intercourse. He had divisions of the Secret Service coordinating his liaisons. Financial resources were funneled into scouting, securing, and serving women to the president. Secret Service agents were diverted from regular duties to plot elaborate mazes through which women were brought to Kennedy. Most of the affairs were one night stands, and his security complained that the number of women coming and going stretched their ability to keep the White House secure. Kennedy shared a woman with mafioso Sam Giancana. She was a dual-mistress and a courier, moving cash from the White House to Giancana to fund the United States’ ongoing operation of failing to kill Castro. (That’s another thing: unlike his immediate predecessors, Kennedy took a direct hand in murder and assassination plots, seemingly unconcerned about plausible deniability. Even Nixon kept a guy or two between himself and the plans.)

When Kennedy traveled abroad, he slept with women who were barely vetted by the Secret Service. He inadvertently slept with former members of the Communist Party (foreign and domestic). He even got the chance to sleep with two actual, bona fide, real-life Communist spies (fortunately for him, their espionage duties were all confined to a middle-tier U.S. ally: England). The ghost of his old friend, Senator Joe McCarthy, must have been otherwise occupied. (Maybe McCarthy’s ghost gave Jack a pass, what with Jack having helped fund the psychotic anti-Communist’s reelection.)

Kennedy’s staff may have tolerated the contortions required to bring women to the president because they couldn’t tolerate his short periods of celibacy. One Secret Service agent described the sexless days when Jackie was at the White House: “[Kennedy] just had headaches. You really saw him droop because he wasn’t getting laid. He was like a rooster getting hit with a water hose.”

Harold Macmillan - Kennedy asked this man whether going a few days without sex gave him headaches.
Harold Macmillan – Kennedy asked this man whether going a few days without sex gave him headaches.

Kennedy told many people about his headaches: friends, enemies, members of the press. “If I don’t have a woman for three days,” he told Harold Macmillian, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, “I get terrible headaches.” (“I wonder how it is with you, Harold?” he asked one of the most distinguished PMs of the 20th century.) This behavior was not libidinous, it was compulsive. Something was…off. Even if we accept only the mildest accounts, John F. Kennedy fit the textbook definition of a terminal sex addict.

Most of what I’ve described emerged from Hersh’s research, which was criticized as lax (there was a minor scandal over one document). The rest emerged in the years since The Dark Side of Camelot was published. The book’s reviewers adopted one of three disingenuous moods: righteous indignation (at Hersh), smug cynicism (very ’90s), or, if you were The New York Times, both. But for the Barnes & Noblers who heard about the sleaze in Newsweek and decided to read it for themselves, the book was a snore. Hersh’s style was dry, straightforward, reporterly. Most readers felt like teenagers who had rented and watched all of I Am Curious for the naughty bits: tired, confused, let down.

In the two years after The Dark Side of Camelot, Democrats defended Bill Clinton’s White House dalliances with everything in their arsenal, including Kennedy. But thanks to Hersh, appeals to Jack were losing their power. Kennedy now offended the sensibilities of too many segments of the body politic, left and right. Hillary Rodham Clinton (all three names) was first lady, the most powerful first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House of Representatives, the most visible Speaker since…I don’t know, Henry Clay? Between second (and third) wave feminists and conservative Evangelicals, there wasn’t much space for an ass-slapping frat boy with a charming smile. Kennedy’s Rat Pack womanizing was no longer cute.

And the real shocks were yet to come.

2. 1961

By the 40th anniversary of the assassination, Kennedy’s legacy was undergoing further revision. The impact of Hersh’s work is acknowledged in the opening line of Robert Dallek’s December 2002 Atlantic cover story:

Recent assessments of Kennedy’s presidency have tended to raise “questions of character”—to view his Administration in the context of his sometimes wayward personal behavior. Such assessments are incomplete. Newly uncovered medical records reveal that the scope and intensity of his physical suffering were beyond what we had previously imagined. What Kennedy endured—and what he hid from the public—both complicates and enlarges our understanding of his character.

Dallek’s article revealed what even Hersh hadn’t discovered (or disclosed). The fact that Kennedy had Addison’s disease was not news. He admitted that during his lifetime. The incredible, byzantine, all-encompassing system that Kennedy and his staff designed to hide the severity of his ailment from the public – that was news. The fact that Kennedy was on massive doses of painkillers throughout his entire presidency, that he required amphetamines, that he may have been addicted to something other than sex – that was news.

Imagine not discovering the full scope of the Watergate cover-up until, say, 2011. The pay-offs, the perjury, all the cloak-and-dagger shit. Now multiply all that by powers of a hundred. This is the impact the general public should have experienced (and Kennedy aficionados certainly did) when they learned that JFK spent long periods of his presidency as a kind of half-cogent prop held together by straps and metal braces underneath his clothes. That he was in constant and agonizing pain. That he was perpetually at death’s doorstep, that he’d taken up permanent residence on death’s doorstep as a young boy. That he had little chance of living into his 50s (hence the urgency to run for president in 1960). That a metal brace on his back held him perfectly upright for Lee Harvey Oswald’s third and fatal bullet.

Hersh had actually disclosed that last horrifying fact in 1997, and had wrongly attributed the brace to a nasty pool-side fall that occurred a few days earlier when the president was, you guessed it, having sex. The pool-side sex/fall did happen, but the brace was there to counteract Addison’s effect on the president’s back.

A weak, dying man in a 42-year old’s body that functions like a 72-year old’s body (except for the groin) certainly cuts a sympathetic figure. But even here, Kennedy found ways to behave recklessly.

Kennedy liked his doctors the way he liked his women: numerous and a little dangerous. The White House hired several medical doctors, including the Hollywood physician Dr. Max Jacobson, whose cocktail of drugs – cortisone and amphetamines, plus other stuff now and again – impaired Kennedy’s physical and cognitive functions. The problem wasn’t the drugs, it was the dosage. All of Kennedy’s physicians prescribed smaller doses of these and similar drugs, most of which would affect the president’s mood and mental clarity a bit (some have argued that certain drugs were responsible for his unquenchable libido). His physicians tried to keep these side effects manageable, but the dosages they prescribed did not fully alleviate Kennedy’s pain. Only Jacobson’s came close. So when his medical team warned that Jacobson’s treatment would too severely diminish the cogency of the president of the United States, Kennedy responded accordingly: he built a Chinese wall between his White House physicians and Jacobson.

This Chinese wall helped erect the Berlin Wall, in its own small way. Kennedy snuck Dr. Jacobson along to Vienna for the June 1961 summit with Nikita Khrushchev. He kept Jacobson’s presence a secret from his other physicians, and – whether out of nerves or genuine pain – asked for an unusually strong dose of painkillers before meeting with the shoe-throwing Soviet leader. Within hours, Kennedy appeared haggard and sick. He was about to meet the leader of the Communist world, and he was stoned.

The fact that Kennedy’s foreign policy was in tatters didn’t help. The new president had struggled to unite his strong-willed defense advisors and could not formulate a sane, cohesive policy toward the Soviet Union and its satellites: something his predecessor had accomplished delicately but deftly. Khrushchev and Eisenhower had been moving toward a kind of detente, albeit at a glacial pace. As Khrushchev consolidated power in the mid-1950s, China began testing the limits of their dependence on Russia. This pushed the U.S.S.R. ever so slightly toward the possibility of cordial relations with the United States. In retrospect, it’s clear that – despite numerous conflicts, setbacks, and both side’s hardline policies – Eisenhower and Khrushchev had made small but significant progress toward a mutually acceptable draw in the Cold War. In fact, this slight slackening in U.S.-Soviet relations helped Kennedy become president: he campaigned loudly on a platform of rearmament and aggression toward Cuba and the Soviet Union. With Barry Goldwater and others, he accused Eisenhower of being soft on Communism. And Eisenhower, in turn, expressed alarm over the aggressive yet casual way the senator from Massachusetts spoke about nuclear weapons.

Kennedy’s consistently hot rhetoric (the “ask not” speech is more warlike than you remember) put Khrushchev on defense when he arrived in Vienna. A year earlier, under Eisenhower, some kind of agreement on Berlin seemed possible. But the Soviets were threatened by Kennedy’s rhetoric, confused by his actions, and now buoyed by his visible physical weakness (which counts for a lot in Russia, apparently). Kennedy was slow to speak, slow to respond. Khrushchev ambushed him.

After Vienna, Soviet resolve had increased. Kennedy appeared distracted, easy to manipulate. Meanwhile, Kennedy developed a nasty infection, exacerbated by his Addison’s, which increased his pain and decreased his mobility (some records intimate that the president nearly died on June 22). Dr. Jacobson amped up the drugs, further decreasing Kennedy’s ability to work. The vibe emanating from the White House was ambivalence, confusion, vulnerability. The tough, hawkish persona Kennedy had spent years cultivating was crumbling. Khrushchev felt increasing comfortable: he threatened to seize West Berlin, and then in August he quarantined East Germany (and the rest of the Eastern bloc) by closing all roads to the West and building a wall around West Berlin, holding millions on the Communist side hostage.

In their haste to prevent East Germans from fleeing, they forgot to Reagan-proof the wall - an oversight they would regret in 28 years.
In their haste to prevent East Germans from fleeing, they forgot to Reagan-proof the wall – an oversight they would regret in 28 years.

Khrushchev never intended to seize West Berlin; he understood that such a move would result in war, perhaps a nuclear exchange. But after seeing the intoxicated president, he thought to himself (in Russian), “Eh, why not?” The bluff would make the quarantine look like a concession; the Soviets could pretend to be the level-headed ones for once.

Dr. Jacobson did not build the Berlin Wall. Plenty of sober minds helped draft Kennedy’s disastrous foreign policy in 1961. Broader geopolitical and economic factors narrowed the options for both Kennedy and Khrushchev at Vienna – neither man was ever in complete control of his government. But insofar as Kennedy had power over certain outcomes, he either bungled or misused it. He had difficulty managing his defense and diplomatic teams, a mish-mash of military brass and technocrats. Everyone in the White House knew that Kennedy was often disoriented by his medication. The president’s lucidity must have been impaired at several important junctures: meetings on Cuba, Turkey, Laos, Vietnam.

Kennedy was not the first or the last president to make foreign policy decisions while intoxicated. But no other president had been so frequently intoxicated while responding to such potentially apocalyptic events.

Apart from the dugs, Kennedy was naturally ambivalent. He loved the appearance of risk but hated the actual, y’know, risk. He committed to major policies half-heartedly. He applied pressure to Indochina, tampered with Cuba, and placed nuclear missiles in Turkey, but always reneged when serious risk seemed imminent. Meanwhile, he began sending olive branches to Khrushchev through back channels and backed off Germany. These oscillations confused Soviet leadership. This man had no idea how to wage a Cold War. So in the summer of 1962, Khrushchev, feeling sufficiently confident in his position vis a vis Kennedy, installed nuclear missiles at the United States’ doorstep.

Then the world almost ended.

By all accounts, Kennedy was cogent throughout the missile crisis. A few months earlier, he had finally caved to pressure from his physicians and fired Dr. Jacobson. His staff recorded a notable change in the president: he wasn’t stoned.

The missile crisis jolted the president. After 1962, his foreign policy oscillations were less extreme, except in one low stakes arena: that sliver of Southeast Asia far away from the rest of the Cold War. Kennedy had already begun to apply his Cuban tactics to South Vietnam: covert operations, low risk disruptions, sex-for-espionage, even a few troops here and there (called them “military advisors”). He could meddle in Vietnam without enraging Khrushchev. And with no overarching Vietnam policy, he could experiment with hundreds of little policies (policies were kind of like women). He could make commitments with governments and then, if he changed his mind, break them. If they threw a fit, no problem: small, pro-American governments in Third World – like women – were easy to kick out. He could fight Communism with few consequences. He could have action without risk. What could possibly go wrong?

3. Playboy

Vienna might have gone poorly, and the Berlin Wall might have been built, even if Kennedy had never met Dr. Jacobson. The doctor and his dope were just two small actors in a much, much larger drama. And we can forgive a sick man for seeking radical treatment to relieve his pain…unless he’s president of the United States. With Dr. Jacobson, Kennedy willfully and recklessly made himself vulnerable, as he had with so many women, any one of whom (as far as the White House knew) could have been Khrushchev’s niece. His worst decisions mirrored the worst aspects of his personality. He was reckless. Selfish. Careless. Unwilling to fully commit. These words describe both his marriage and Bay of Pigs, or Vietnam.

Kennedy relished the illusion of action, and for most of his life, people were paid to pretend the illusion was real. “Never expect any appreciation from my boys,” Joe Kennedy told Tip O’Neill in 1953. “These kids have had so much done for them by other people that they just assume it’s coming.” If Kennedy wanted something, he got it; more dangerously, if he wanted to be something, he became it. His father’s influence and sense of entitlement guaranteed that just enough people would play along to make it real for Jack. Consequently, Jack jumped into positions he hadn’t prepared for and just lazily played the part. Jack’s acting career was more varied than Ronald Reagan’s. He played good student. He played celebrated author. He played at winning a Pulitzer. He played underdog candidate. He played congressman. He played senator. He played president. He played a healthy, vigorous young man. And he always got away with it. Only the presidency required some real effort, some real acting, before he got the part (one of the most subtle actors in 20th centuries was competing with him for the role). But Kennedy always knew to expect a deus ex machina or, in this case, a daley tex machina. Daddy delivered.

rockyIt’s difficult to fault Kennedy for being spoiled. But compare Kennedy to Nelson Rockefeller, his closest counterpart, to see how singularly Kennedy’s hyper-privileged upbringing deformed his character.

Like Kennedy, Rockefeller was the a son of ridiculous wealth who fully expected to become president one day. Like Kennedy, he was spoiled, petulant, and licentious. Granted, Rockefeller didn’t possess Kennedy’s bitterly competitive edge or his taste for corruption, but he also didn’t have Joe for a father. Sure, Jack and Nelson’s advantages were handed down differently: what Jack got from his father’s willingness to cheat, steal, bribe, fight, and rig nearly anything to get his boys elected, Nelson got from his name, an intangible key that opened every door in the free world. Nelson had more advantages, probably; but then he wasn’t the one who became president.

Still, Jack and Nelson are worth looking at side-by-side. Rockefeller possessed all the repulsive qualities of a privileged son, and he grew sour with age. But he possessed warmth and sincerity, too. He slept around and committed adultery, but he also had the capacity to fall in love with a woman and settle down (and probably lost the Republican nomination for it). Above all, he possessed a set of convictions that were noble and inflexible, and he was willing to sacrifice political capital in the service of these convictions. His political career stalled because he wouldn’t accept the Republican party’s willingness to trade integrity for nihilism on Civil Rights in exchange for the votes of the old Confederacy.

Kennedy’s virtues were much sparser: he was undeniably charismatic. He was naturally funny, charming, and quick-witted. He was genuinely  kind to his friends and allies (he could be ruthless with anyone he didn’t like; unlike Bobby, however, ruthlessness was not his sole attribute). As for conviction: Kennedy’s admirers point to his Civil Rights record, and it’s true he proposed a Civil Rights bill and (characteristically) took some half-risks in the process. It’s even possible he would have risked losing one or two states in 1964 for Civil Rights.

But I really doubt it.

From the beginning, Kennedy was terrified of Civil Rights issues. He was terrified of Southern politics. He didn’t want any of it near the White House; or, he didn’t want it near him. Whatever progressive moves he made on Civil Rights were the result of intense pressure from within his party and his administration. But in general, he took a tepid stance – if he planned to sincerely fight for the Civil Rights bill he proposed, a la LBJ, he didn’t let on. Pro-segregationists from within his party were powerful, and the president’s team didn’t want blacks to cost him a second term. The issues at stake was toxic. Whatever gestures Kennedy made toward the Civil Rights movement were just that: gestures.

Sincere political conviction frightened Kennedy more than marital fidelity. He spent his entire political career avoiding it.

Judged solely on his personality, John Fitzgerald Kennedy possessed more unattractive qualities than any U.S. president since Andrew Jackson. And like Jackson, his persona overwhelmed his presidency. In that respect, the crude, licentious, perpetually doped frat boy is merely an inversion of the witty, energetic, charismatic Camelot Kennedy: both are a spectacle, designed to make politics more exciting to people at the dentist’s office.

As a result, critics sometimes dismiss Kennedy on the basis of spectacle (he’s just a cultural figure, a celebrity, a sex symbol, a martyr, etc.). But that only diminishes his many dubious accomplishments. In a mere thirty-four months (or “a thousand days,” if you want to get all goose-bumpy), Kennedy oversaw a frightening reversal of Cold War strategy; equivocated on or blundered the most vital issues; dramatically escalated the government’s reliance on thugs, mercenaries, and gangsters (LBJ called it “a damned Murder Incorporated”); and treated nuclear war as a penis-measuring contest, recklessly taunting the Soviet Union more than any other Cold War president (yes, including Reagan).

All this in addition to the lies, drugs, and hedonism that receive more press, the slime that coats his more substantive failures. With John F. Kennedy, personal flaws and political failures emanate from the same sewer.

In the next installment: November 22, 1963

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2 thoughts on “The Worst President of the 20th Century: Part Two”

  1. I think Kennedy is overrated, but far from a bad President per say. Whatever you can say about the man, he handled the CMC beautifully.

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