Mimi Alford, the grandmother of five who claims in her new memoir to have been President John F. Kennedy’s mistress as a 19-year old White House intern, made the rounds of some of America’s leading talk shows last week. But you’d hardly know it from the contemptuous response she received.
In Alford’s appearance on “The View,” co-host Barbara Walters, no stranger to adultery herself (her own highly-publicized affair with former Sen. Ed Brooke is the stuff of legends), bristled with condescension, demanding to know what took the 69-year-old retired church administrator so long to write her book, Once Upon a Secret – and whether she was just “in it for the money.”
Alford’s answer – that she was hoping to get a long-buried secret off her chest, and to heal – seemed eminently reasonable on its face. But no one, it seems – least of all Whoopi Goldberg, who’d threatened to boycott the interview, perhaps out of sympathy for the surviving Kennedy relatives – was in the mood to listen.
Chris Matthews, meanwhile, could barely get a rise out of his assembled panel of JFK experts, who quickly dismissed Alford’s salacious tale as “irrelevant.” One panelist even feigned an exaggerated yawn when asked to comment on the book and its implications for Kennedy’s “legacy.”
At one level, can you blame them? After all, JFK’s penchant for womanizing is already part of the official presidential record, and is deeply ingrained in our national psyche. How many more details about his sexual adventures do we really need? Moreover, Alford’s story has surfaced previously. JFK biographer Robert Dallek, in his 2003 book, JFK: An Unifinished Life, all but “outed” Alford without actually mentioning her by name. He describes a “tall, slender, beautiful nineteen-year-old college sophomore” who was JFK’s mistress, and his account matches Alford’s perfectly.
In fact, after Dallek’s book appeared, a number of journalists managed to track the former intern down. Asked to elaborate on Dallek’s account, and to confirm a separate one by journalist Sally Bedell Smith, she demurred. That was her right, of course. But the media – like selfish boys who one day grow up to be president – often punishes those who hold out.
There’s also the fact that we’re in an election year, with an embattled Democratic president in the midst of a fierce re-election campaign. Obama may be above reproach, but dredging up JFK and his peccadilloes could remind voters that a number of other Democratic figures, including former president Bill Clinton, have carried on in much the same fashion. “Social issues” seem to be gaining influence inside the GOP again, and could end up shaping broader voter preferences in November.
Of course, Democrats aren’t the only ones with cause to worry. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is fending off the snide insinuations of his rivals that he’s a shameless adulterer unfit for the presidency – for which there is ample evidence. And members of both parties in Congress – most recently House Democrat Alcee Hastings, and before him Rep. Anthony Wiener – face constant scrutiny, and pressure to resign, as their sexual indiscretions become known.
It could just be that the country – and the media – are inured to reports of sexual transgression by politicians, even if, Alford’s 50-year old case – one of the most detailed accounts of presidential philandering anywhere – stands as something of a Rosetta stone for what has since come to pass. It might even have led to an interesting discussion about how our standards and attitudes toward politicians and sex have – or haven’t – changed, and why.
Alford’s story, viewed in-depth, is deeply troubling, in fact. It’s clear from listening to her that the affair, if it happened – and no one has any real reason to doubt that it did – profoundly affected her life, and though consensual in the strict sense, it represented an enormous abuse of power.
Alford hadn’t been in her job 4 days before JFK lured her to the presidential bedroom and bedded her down. She was a virgin at the time, and it’s clear, at least from her telling (there are no independent witnesses) that the president could have cared less what the impact of his actions might be on a young woman in his charge.
Kennedy, it seems, was in full predator mode, and though he seems to have developed some real affection for Alford over time, he ended up treating her like a call girl, summoning her at all hours, and leaving her to languish in hotel rooms or presidential limousines when it turned out that he couldn’t get away. (Incredibly, he did make time for her at the conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and during other key moments in his presidency).
In fact, listening to Alford talk about the affair, one can see, or sense, that she never really got over it, and retains deeply conflicted feelings. When she talks about JFK, she doesn’t sound like a grown woman reflecting wistfully on her early loss of innocence, but a still-fragile girl remembering the powerful male figure who overwhelmed her. In interviews, she seems frozen in time, still blushing at the thought that “such a handsome man picked me,” which JFK did, of course, just as he picked so many others.
Alford says she’s alright today, and we have no real reason to doubt her, except that her recounting of her experience, both in her book, and in person, seems to betray a longing, and an unresolved grief. No one was available to listen to her story at the time, and it’s unclear whether she ever got or needed counseling or therapy to move on with her life. She eventually stopped seeing Kennedy to get married, but he insisted on seeing her even after she got engaged, and her marriage didn’t last. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to figure out why.
Of course, there’s another reason Alford might have gotten such a cold reception last week. She reminds so many women, including national journalists, about how things used to be, in the pre-feminist era, for women. Her story, if probed, might lead to uncomfortable questions about what others would have done, then or now, at such a tender age. Perhaps they’d rather not know the answer to that — or worse, they’ve had similar experiences they’re not prepared to divulge.
Alford never resisted Kennedy’s charms, and she says that she couldn’t imagine having escaped their first sexual encounter – which, by today’s standards, constituted workplace sexual harassment, and coercion, if not rape – unless she’d been brave enough to scream. She also submitted to at least one incredibly humiliating episode, when JFK on a whim induced her to perform oral sex on one of his top aides, which she did — far too willingly, it seems. But she also remembers fondly her bathtub romps with the president and describes him with a smile as a “playful” lover – as if it all happened yesterday, rather than a half century ago.
Alford, who coincidentally attended the same Rhode Island finishing school that Jackie Kennedy once did, looked coiffed, poised and elegant, and seemed eager to tell her story. But despite the big-time bookings she received, it was clear that no one really had time for her. They listened, not always politely, asked a few perfunctory questions, and then dismissed her with a hint of condescension – and confusion.
Maybe she should have skipped the media tour altogether. At least with JFK, she occasionally had more fun.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org