Timothy Noah, once a reporter for Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, is not in the Chris Matthews "elusive hero" camp on John F. Kennedy. The new memoir from former intern Mimi Alford led him to post a blog titled "JFK, Monster." He finds Alford's claims very persuasive and is appalled at the spectacle of President Kennedy pressuring his college-age intern mistress into performing oral sex on his aide Dave Powers.
Noah insisted this shows Kennedy "was capable of monstrous cruelty that's hard to forgive and also hard to equate even with that of successors like Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon." He mysteriously added "Clinton shared many vices with President Kennedy, but I can't imagine him ever doing anything like this." He certainly must not find Juanita Broaddrick's story of being sexually assaulted by Clinton as credible.
Noah quoted from Alford's memoir:
The President swam over and whispered in my ear. "Mr. Powers looks a little tense," he said. "Would you take care of it?"
It was a dare, but I knew exactly what he meant. This was a challenge to give Dave Powers oral sex. I don't think the President thought I'd do it, but I'm ashamed to say that I did. It was a pathetic, sordid, scene, and is very hard for me to think about today. Dave was jolly and obedient as I stood in the shallow end of the pool and performed my duties. The President silently watched.
Alford believes that Kennedy showed "his darker side ... when we were among men he knew. That's when he felt a need to display his power over me." Kennedy didn't just have a thing for Social Register girls; he had a thing for humiliating Social Register girls. He also had a thing for humiliating his fellow Irishman, Dave Powers.
Maybe Kennedy wasn't this much of a creep all that much (though Alford also tells of him once forcing her to take an amyl nitrite "popper" in Bing Crosby's living room). But the poolside ritual of humiliation is not easy to reconcile with any kind of worldly tolerance for Kennedy's peccadilloes. Perhaps the fairest conclusion to make is that Kennedy did some good things in his public life (and also some bad), but that he was capable of monstrous cruelty that's hard to forgive and also hard to equate even with that of successors like Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon (or with any in his less polished younger brother Ted, whose own private life had plenty of dark moments but whose public accomplishment ultimately outshone JFK's). Clinton shared many vices with President Kennedy, but I can't imagine him ever doing anything like this. I don't usually say this about scandal stories, but Alford's tale ought to occasion further reassessment of a president we already knew to be morally compromised.
Of course, The New Republic had a bombs-away book review of Chris Matthews last month from David Greenberg, who wouldn't even say, "hey, nice clip job, TV boy":
The bulk of the book comes straight from other well-known, widely read biographies—by Dallek, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Herbert Parmet, among others—and from the memoirs of Kennedy aides, including Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Dave Powers and Kenneth O’Donnell. Most strangely of all, just 78 pages of Jack Kennedy deal with the man’s presidency. It’s as if the author, having rambled on until he noticed that his prolixity would produce a book too long to sell at Costco, wrapped it up hastily, rehearsing a few standard set pieces of the early 1960s—the civil rights struggle, the Peace Corps, the thaw in the Cold War—and tacking on a conclusion.
The reason that a book so devoid of historical or literary merit can become a best-seller is, of course, that its ostensible author is a famous television personality. As I write this, Jack Kennedy is one of three books of “presidential history” on the New York Times best-seller list, jostling for position with Bill O’Reilly’s treatise on Abraham Lincoln and Glenn Beck’s opus about George Washington. (Perhaps the publishing houses’ spring lists will bring more in this vein—Regis Philbin on Dwight Eisenhower? Rachel Maddow on Jimmy Carter? Elizabeth Hasselbeck on Ronald Reagan?) These books exist to extend their authors’ brands—to make money, to be sure, and to express some set of ideas, however vague, but mainly to keep their celebrity creators in the media spotlight.
Serious readers tend to believe, not wrongly, that books by such people aren’t worth much thought.