Thursday, February 9, 2012

JFK, Mimi Alford, and the Morality of Leaders

I have personally never gotten the Kennedy cult -- I guess it's just exciting for some liberals that they once had a really charismatic figure leading their cause. But, for whatever reason, Kennedy looms very large in the American liberal imagination. There is a very moving episode of the X-Files in which a young, idealistic man who wants to believe the best about America learns about the depth of its corruption from Kennedy's assassination, and if there aren't many real people who go that far, I have met quite a few with tendencies in that direction.

Does it matter that JFK was a serial philanderer, drug abuser, and all-around cad? Mimi Alford has come forward with the story of the 18-month affair she had with the President, and all the Kennedy biographers are saying she is completely credible. Kennedy lured her to the White House with the offer of an internship that she didn't even apply for, seduced her on her fourth day on the job, and flew her around the country with him to occupy his free time. The prurient headline so far has been that Kennedy once "urged her to perform a sex act on" his aide Dave Powers while he watched.

I find myself of two minds about all of this. On the one hand I think, what kind of man do you think gets involved in politics anyway? High-testosterone narcissists are surely the most common type of male politician, and they no doubt have affairs at a much higher rate than the general population. Would you prefer closeted gay neat freaks, or religious fanatics? Ambitious empty suits? As I have written before, a quick perusal of history reveals that many of our greatest leaders have closets full of sins.

But is it possible to ignore such behavior by leaders, as I did when I twice voted for Bill Clinton, without somehow endorsing them in a broader sense? If we are willing to send an adulterer to the White House, do we then have any basis for expecting better behavior from anyone, including our own spouses?

I believe that there has been a decline in the sense of shame among middle class Americans and Europeans. We used to engage in ritual shunning of people who broke the social rules, especially young women who "strayed." Once we stopped acting toward such women with awful cruelty, the stigma of unwed pregnancy quickly shrank to near nothing, and now it is routine for single women to have babies. (Which I think is a catastrophe.) The greed of corporate executives and athletes used to be limited by strong social pressure to do the right thing, and those who were too sleazy lost their fans or couldn't get into the right country club. Now we think anyone who doesn't demand the most money he can possibly get is a chump. Does excusing the sinfulness of presidential candidates feed this change?

Or is the public role of presidents so important that it is immoral not to ignore everything else about them? They can declare wars, order assassinations, and have some influence on whether or not thousands of people have jobs; it seems to me that supporting a less able leader because of his personal moral qualities would actually be very wrong.

So I voted for Bill Clinton, and I would have voted for John Edwards over John McCain if I had had to. But I don't feel great about it.

1 comment:

David said...

I'm not sure our public morality has actually declined in a broad sense. The increase in unwed births is not a good thing overall. But in other spheres I'm skeptical. I don't know how one would measure such a thing, but I suspect, for example, that our politicians as a whole are less criminally corrupt than those of, say, the period 1870-1930. Of course, money has found all sorts of subtler ways to influence our politics, as with Super PACs, but I don't know that that makes us MORE corrupt than our ancestors.

As for politicians' adultery, I think the evidence is equivocal. Many politicians who are discovered cheating are destroyed; only a few--the Kennedy brothers, Clinton, arguably even Gingrich--have survived and prospered (at least in memory) despite the revelation. As for money in sports and entertainment, I suspect Americans view the huge salaries in those fields with equanimity, less because we've all grown cynical, than because Americans admire such persons so tremendously. Americans believe star quarterbacks DESERVE their millions.

One note I think is interesting is that, though JFK was obviously very attractive to women, I'm not sure it was because he reeked with aggression and testosterone (which I don't think is what you were claiming, but anyway). His male counterparts regarded him as rather weak and callow, and at their first meeting Khruschev ate him alive, by JFK's own admission (of course, surviving Stalin was a school in toughness hardly to be matched by any American experience in the twentieth century). JFK of course eventually learned a good balance of caution and aggression, which I think is a major reason why people still admire him, glamour notwithstanding.