Trump v. Kennedy: Presidential Sex and the Transformation of Shame

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John Kennedy (1917-1963) was 46 years old when he took office; Donald Trump (1946-) was 71 when he was inaugurated.  A half-century separates Kennedy’s assassination and Trump’s presidency, a half-century in which America’s moral order profoundly changed.

Once upon a time a president could engage in an almost-endless series of sexual relations with women – before and once-assuming office – and a wink-and-a-nod attitude among the media would keep it a public secret, a secret that morphed from scandal to presidential lore after his assassination.  Decades later, a president – before assuming office – could engage in an almost-endless series of sexual relations (consensual, commercial and unwanted) with women that the media promoted as red-meat distraction but had little influence on his public standing.

The juxtaposition of the sexual mythologies associated with Kennedy and Trump offers a unique vantage point to assess the changes in the nation’s sexual values over the last half-century.

Between these two sexual mavericks, nine presidents have held office – Obama, Bush-II, Clinton, Bush-I, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon and Johnson.  Many were involved in a sex scandal, with Clinton being impeached partially due to lying about such a misadventure.  However, in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, stories of politicians and celebrities involved in a sex scandal became the red-meat of media journalism. Trump’s election made presidential sex scandal a media circus, but with little sticking power.  The outing of Harvey Weinstein and innumerable other male sexual abusers and the rise of #MeToo! movement many testify to a shift in social values.

Trump’s election revealed many things, one often overlooked is the continuing – and seemingly uncritical – support he’s received from white evangelicals.  They’ve embraced a man whose been married three time, has engaged in innumerable non-commercial and commercial sexual relations – many while married – and is accused by more than a dozen women of unwanted sexual assaults; three women are pursuing civil claims in local courts, thus raising the likelihood that he will be questioned under oath.  America’s come a long way from the grand fictions of “Camelot” and JFK.


In the summer of 1963, just months before Pres. Kennedy’s assassination, a truly international sex scandal captured media headlines.  John Profumo, the UK’s minister of war, was outed in a particularly British affair, an extra-marital indulgence with a high-class call girl, Christine Keeler. It was further revealed that Keeler was having a simultaneous affair with a senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy, Eugene Ivanov. The story crossed the pond when one of Keller’s fellow call girls, Mariella Novotny, claimed she had a relationship with both Kennedy and Ivanov. The American media heard about the allegations involving JFK and raised the story with the White House. Robert Kennedy, then attorney general, intervened to keep the story from going public.

After his assassination, rumors about Kennedy’s sexual dalliances became fodder for gossip columnists and others. His affairs involved movie stars Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson; Inga Arvad, a Danish journalist; the stripper, Blaze Starr; Judith Exner Campbell, mistress to mob boss Sam Giancana; and White House secretaries Priscilla Weir and Jill Cowan, who were referred to as “Fiddle” and “Faddle.” The son of Mary Evelyn Bibb Worthington, a society lady, Jack Worthington II, claims he’s JFK’s bastard or illegitimate offspring.

The sad tale of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s ill-fated car ride with Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old secretary, on the night of July 18, 1969, challenged the era’s wink-and-a-nod journalism.  The Kennedy clan gathered to host an intimate barbeque on Chappaquiddick Island, near Martha’s Vineyard, MA, and, at around 11:00 pm, Kopechne sought a ride to a nearby ferry and Kennedy give her a lift. As Kennedy later claimed, he made a wrong turn onto an unlit dirt road and drove off the Dyke Bridge. The car turned over into the tidal water.

The Senator got out of the submerged car, but, he says, failed in his attempts to pull out Kopechne. Kennedy walked back to the party and, after speaking with some of his closest confidants, returned to the scene of the accident but could not access the submerged car. Nevertheless, neither Kennedy nor his associates called the police that night.

Next morning, local Chappaquiddick fishermen found the car, pulled it from the water and notified the police. When local police questioned Kennedy about the accident, he initially denied all knowledge of it, but then admitted his involvement only to refuse further comment until his attorney arrived. Controversy emerged when a witness reported that Kopechne’s body was in a position that suggested she had suffocated and had not drowned. This implied that she might have been saved if Kennedy had acted more expeditiously. Others suggested that Kennedy might have been drunk while driving. Still others suggested that he may have made inappropriate sexual advances to Kopechne. However, these issues went unaddressed as the Kopechne family refused to submit her body to an autopsy.

The incident ended with Kennedy being charged with leaving the scene of the accident, for which he received a two-month suspended sentence and one-year probation. In a subsequent television interview, he called his actions “indefensible” and said he would not run for re-election in 1972. Nevertheless, he reversed course and was reelected.

The social fiction that presidents had private sex lives continued under Johnson and Nixon, but slowly faded with Ford (and VP Nelson Rockefeller), Carter and Reagan. LBJ once boasted: “I have had more women by accident than he [JFK] has had on purpose.” Among his reported conquests were Madeline Brown, who claims that they had an affair that lasted more than two decades and that LBJ fathered her son. Brown insists that their affair was purely physical and remained hidden from Lady Bird. In his biography of LBJ, Robert Caro revealed that Johnson also had a thirty-year affair with Alice Glass. Their friendship began in 1937 when she was living with her common-law husband, Charles Marsh, and their two children. Marsh was a newspaper mogul and one of his papers, the Austin American-Statesman, was an influential LBJ supporter. It is rumored that Glass ended her affair with LBJ in 1967 over her opposition to the Vietnam War. She also burned their love letters.

Much gossip circulated about Nixon long-term friendship with Marianna Liu, a Chinese cocktail waitress.  Nixon apparently first met Liu in 1958 while she was a Hong Kong tour-guide. It is reported that, in the mid-60s, Liu and a female friend had a party with Nixon and his buddy, Bebe Rebozo, in a suite at the Mandarin Hotel. What gives this scandal a sleazy cast is the alleged role of Hoover in exploiting the affair to gain leverage over Nixon. As the story goes, one of Liu’s closest friends was a general in the Communist Chinese army. In 1969, Liu moved to Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, CA, and denied that there ever had been an affair.

In the wake of Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford assumed the presidency and Nelson Rockefeller, one of the nation’s richest men and grand philanderers, became vice president.  Rockefeller, while private arts tycoon and then New York governor, is rumored to have had many extra-marital liaisons. He died of a heart attack in January 1979, naked, having sex with his 27-year-old mistress, Megan Marshak. She was pinned underneath him and had a hard time getting out from under the 71-year-old overweight statesman. For all her pain and suffering, Rockefeller left Marshak the deed to the mid-town Manhattan townhouse in which he died and $50,000.

Jimmy Carter, a “born again” Christian and very morally-married president, famously admitted in a 1976 Playboy interview, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

George H.W. Bush presented himself as the all-American family man, married to the upstanding Barbara and father to a subsequent president. However, rumors long circulated the he had an extra-marital affair with his former assistant, Jennifer Fitzgerald.  More recently, there’ve been numerous reports of Bush-the-Elder groped younger women – and him even apologizing.

In 1991, People magazine published a story charging the former president Ronald Reagan with raping an actress four-decades earlier. The story was put forward by the gossip-journalist Kitty Kelley in her top-seller, Nancy ReaganThe Unauthorized Biography. As champion of the conservative ascension to federal power, Reagan had come under Christianscrutiny because he was the first, and then only, divorced man elected president. He married Jane Wyman in January 1940, her third husband; she filed for divorce in 1948. In 1952, he married the actress Nancy Davis.

More importantly, Kelley uncovered a long-forgotten episode that shocked many. In 1952, Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, visited the home of Selene Walter and, she insisted, overpowered and raped her. In the People magazine story, Walters stated: “I opened the door, then it was the battle of the couch. I was fighting him. I didn’t want him to make love to me. He’s a very big man, and he just had his way.” (Kelley also reported, without substantiation, that the Reagans smoked pot with Jack Benny and George Burns and that Frank Sinatra had an affair with Nancy Reagan. It should be noted that no legal actions were undertaken.

And then there was Bill Clinton.  In January 1992, just weeks before the all-important New Hampshire primary, Star, the gossip tabloid, published an exposé claiming that Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas state employee and cabaret singer, had had a 12-year affair with the governor. Moving quickly to counter the scandalous claim, Clinton, joined by his wife, Hillary, appeared later that week on CBS’s “60 Minutes” immediately following the Super Bowl, thus ensuring a huge national audience. The couples’ denial, offered with a sincerity not seen since Nixon’s famous Checkers speech of a half-century earlier, was so convincing that it helped him defeat the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, in a three-way race with Ross Perot.

Clinton’s victory was seen by many as illegitimate, an electoral anomaly. Republicans, religious conservatives and other right-wingers started gunning for him from day one of his presidency. Early in1994, conservative gossipmongers started spreading stories about Paula Jones, an Arkansas state clerical worker, who claimed that she was sexually assaulted by then-governor Clinton. As she later detailed in a formal deposition, she insisted that in 1991 state police escorted her to a Little Rock hotel room where Clinton dropped his trousers and asked her to perform a sex act. Clinton initially denied the charge, his supporters dismissing her as “trailer park trash.” However, later in ’94 Jones filled a civil lawsuit against Clinton seeking $700,000 in damages and a personal apology. Many credit the Flowers and Jones scandals with helping the Republicans win their ’94 “revolution” and capturing both Houses of Congress.

In early ’97, rumors began to circulate in Washington about the president’s fascination with a young intern. According to a detailed chronology of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal compiled by CNN, the first formal discussion took place in October 1997. Linda Tripp, Lewinsky’s fellow employee at the Defense Department and confidante, met with Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff and Lucianne and Jonah Goldberg at the Goldbergs’ apartment in Washington, DC, and listened to a tape of the Tripp-Lewinsky conversations.

Slowly, word started to get out about the affair. Conservative Christians and Republicans believed that Clinton’s compulsive desire for sex in the Oval Office indicated that America needed to be cleansed of its moral rot. This legitimized a Republican witch-hunt that culminated in the president’s impeachment by a vindictive Congress—and contributed to Bush’s presidential victory in 2000. More compelling, it precipitated a national sex panic that lasted for more than a decade.

Sen Gary Hart’s (D-CO) tryst with Donna Rice captured the most media attention and cost him the 1998 presidential nomination. Like a moth to a flame, in 1987, Hart spent a night with Rice in 1987 aboard the yacht, Monkey Business, on the exotic get-a-way of Bimini.  Hart challenged the media to report on his tryst – and they did! While first denying any illicit purpose for being with Rice, his fiction proved untenable as additional stories of his wayward activities came out.

However, a host of Republicans were swept up in the sex scandals of the late-80s and early-90s.  Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) was outed for having sex with a prostitute; Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-ID), a fierce critic of Bill Clinton, was outed having along-term affair with a married man; and Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) was outed for fathering a child with a woman during an extramarital affair.  Nevertheless, a second group of hypocrites, including Reps. Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Henry Hyde (R-IL), were outed long after Clinton had left the White House. Their prior sexual liaisons seem to have compromised their high-minded moralistic opposition to the president. Truer hypocrites never walked the halls of Congress.

A peculiar sexual perversion marked George W. Bush’s presidency. In May 2003, he co-piloted a Navy S-3B Viking as it few above and then landed ontheSS Abraham Lincoln, an air-craft carrier. Strutting about in his Top Gun uniform or with his sleeves rolled up while ineptly asserting command amidst the debacle of Hurricane Katrina, Bush was a fetishist’s dream come true. He understood (if only subconsciously) that the trappings of power, the costumes, the proclamations, the public presentations, were as essential as its exercise, the wars conducted, the deals cut, the legislation passed. Whether in a Top Gun outfit, a business suit or swaggering in a cowboy getup, Bush’s uniforms codified a fetishistic representation of power.  Equally revealing, the Bush administration began auspiciously when Attorney General John Ashcroft draped two semi-nude statues, “Spirit of Justice” (female) and “Majesty of Law” (male), in the Justice Department auditorium.

Bush-the-Lesser is haunted by two sex scandals that have been successfully dismissed as crank complaints, effectively swept under the proverbial rug. The first involved a criminal complaint and lawsuit of rape by Margie Schoedinger, who later committed suicide; the second is an accusation by Tammy Phillips, partner in a gym in Carrollton, TX, and a former stripper, of having an affair with Bush that ended in 1999. Reports differ as to whether the alleged affair lasted nine or eighteen months. The scandal did get some initial traction with reports in the National EnquirerSlate, New York Post and on Fox News, but disappeared as the 2000 campaign got underway. One local politico expressed surprise about Bush’s alleged affair with Phillips, “It means that he stopped fooling around just prior to announcing his presidential run.” Phillips seems to have disappeared and not pursued the accusation.

Speaking in terms of presidential sex scandal, Obama is Mr. Clean.  While Trump and others promoted “false news” that he was a Muslim and born in Kenya, little sex-scandal mongering followed Obama. In 2010, the National Enquirer, a long-term Trump backer, promoted the headline: “PRESIDENT OBAMA in a shocking cheating scandal after being caught in a D.C. hotel with a former campaign aide.”  The un-verified story claimed that as an Illinois State Senator, Obama alleged had an extramarital affair with a staffer, Vera Baker. Like innumerable stories with no legs, it came and went.

Which bring us to Trump.  Since taking office, he apparently has not had an extra-marital sexual liaison; “fake news” gossip briefly circulated that he had an affair with UN Representative Nikki Haley. However, in the decades prior to his election, Trump reputation of philandering, as well as sexual abuse, preceded him.


The scandal is a public spectacle intended to serve two contradictory social functions. First and foremost, a scandal is a morality tale, a public ritual intended to punish or shame the perpetrator. Second, particularly over the last century, the scandal has changed, increasingly becoming a form of entertainment, intended to distract or fascinate the public, in which moral shaming is less valued than the public spectacle engendered.

Each age engenders its own sex scandals. Among the Puritans, scandals served a moral purpose, to impose shame and enforce social discipline. This persists even today, but in a culturally augmented form. Scandals are enhanced with a licentiousness unique to postmodern consumer capitalism.

The shift in the social function of the scandal is a measure of how moral values of the secular marketplace are increasingly replacing the power of religious tradition. Nothing demonstrates this better than the evolution of scandals involving political figures, especially presidents, over the last half-century.

The half-century spanning the eras of Kennedy and Trump marks a critical period in U.S. history.  JFK invoked a new spirit of possibility; Trump suggests – specially invoked in his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” – the closing of possibility.

During the JFK era, patriarchal masculinity was in its ascendency.  America was capitol of the “free world” and Kennedy was its secular king. Whether endured in the endless military failure in Vietnam or the fictions of Mad Men, patriarchal certainty ruled.  In Trump’s America, masculinity is in crisis.  Many Americans – and especially aging white people – feel threatened, their traditional masculine authority challenged.  Their old world is coming to an end and they know it but can’t do anything about it.

Against the festering crisis of masculine confidence, Trump preaches a false bravado. It’s a bravado of denial about recent exposés involving a former porn star and Playmate-of-the-Year and sizable payoff for them to keep quiet. It’s the claimed ignorance with regard to the dozen-plus sexual assault claims against him.  It’s the false masculinity displayed for all to see in the October 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton, who he literally stalked on stage.

Trump’s bravado is a forceful rejection of a personal sense of shame for the morally-questionable actions he’s either been actively or allegedly involved in.  The innumerable outings of politicians and celebrities in sex scandal over the last half-century were based on public shaming, but here is a president who rejects personal shame or moral responsibility for his action.

In the good-old days of patriarchal masculinity, Kennedy’s innumerable sexual extra-marital and abusive relations were public secrets, private chuckles of the good-old-boys network. The nation’s morality police – i.e., the media and religious leaders –did not shame him.

Today, patriarchal masculinity is being challenged. Trump’s innumerable sexual extra-marital and abusive relations are headlines, but the nation’s morality police – i.e., the media and religious leaders – can no longer shame him.

The outing of Harvey Weinstein and innumerable other male sexual abusers and the rise of the #MeToo movement has shifted the terrain of public shaming.  Where once the outing of a handful of politicians and celebrities was a media sport, the outing of the legion of male bosses or leaders who took advantage of their position to abuse or take advantage of a female employee, student, colleague, etc., may signal a shift in social values.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out