John F. Kennedy inherited those attitudes. His father, who sired nine, made a fortune in the stock market, from importing liquor and as a Hollywood mogul, enjoying along the way liaisons with movie stars.
On his way to the White House, JFK told my reporter, “I see many politicians’ wives who are just as vigorous as their husbands. That may be fine for them, but not for me. I spend my days with politicians, not my nights, too. I don’t want to come home and have to defend my positions all evening.”
So much for marital sharing (even Bill Clinton, with all his chasing, made Hillary a political partner), but more serious questions are: Did Kennedy’s sex life affect his performance as President and were the media back then accomplices in concealing it?
There is a case for both. Through his friend Frank Sinatra, JFK shared a woman with Mafia boss Sam Giancana and made himself vulnerable to blackmail by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, who used it as job insurance. Journalists back then knew enough to pursue that story, among others, but held back.
Why? In hindsight, self-justifications were a mélange of passing off such behavior as a personal quirk, stuffiness of editors and reporters in disdaining “gossip” and, perhaps most of all, admiring Kennedy personally and sharing his political views. We were too easy on him and ourselves.
Even after the assassination, Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy still worked hard to quash it all. Red Fay, an unqualified crony JFK appointed Undersecretary of the Navy, served mainly as a beard for his extracurricular activities. He escorted Angie Dickenson, a movie actress he had never met, to the Inaugural Ball so the President could dance with her.
When I was publishing excerpts from faithful Fay’s colorful but unrevealing memoirs, the surviving Kennedys pressured him to remove such bits as John Jr. splashing his father in a pool and calling him “pooh-pooh head.”
At a lunch afterward, Robert Kennedy solemnly thanked me for my cooperation in such cuts “for the sake of the children.” The myth had to be preserved at all costs.
Even now, I feel a twinge of guilt at retelling all this, but titillation is not the point. No one expects politicians to be plaster saints, but their escape or downfall over sexual exploits is so arbitrary. (In our era, Gen. Petraeus goes down, but David Vitter survives. Why?)
After all this time, the moral scorecard on John F. Kennedy is that he was a life-loving, imperfect man on his way to becoming a great President. His destiny was denied him--and us--by the most immoral act of all.
Next: 13 days to save the world.