White House dalliances are nothing new—but Clinton's are far more public
Bill Clinton has never been shy about drawing comparisons between himself and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The 42nd President of the United States has, in fact, always claimed that it was America’s 35th chief executive who inspired his long trek from the little town of Hope, Ark., to the White House. It was certainly no accident that Clinton chose to underline the point during his own Democratic party nomination in 1992, when his campaign team released a 29-year-old film clip capturing a brief Rose Garden handshake between thenPresident Kennedy and a brighteyed, 17-year-old Clinton. But if that scene was selected to symbolize the passing of the torch, the current President may be having second thoughts. For the comparisons now being drawn between Clinton and Kennedy are far more unsavory. “They seem to share the same recklessness about sex,” says Washing« ton-based journalist and author Seymour Hersh. “The big differ§ ence is that Kennedy got away I with it. Clinton may not.”
Right from the outset, the man who is now sitting in the White
House has labored under a shad% ow. “Slick Willie” they called him during the early days of his run | for the presidency, an epithet that owed as much to his reputation as an unscrupulous womanizer as to his penchant for avoiding direct answers to hard questions. He first sprang to national prominence not simply as a candidate for the highest office in the land but, rather, as the presidential contender with the murky past, an adulterer, the alleged lover of an obscure songstress. That Clinton not only survived Gennifer Flowers’ charges but went on to defeat a sitting president and then, four years later, win re-election is testament to his political appeal. But despite his triumphs, Clinton has never quite been able to shake free of the suspicions that linger about his character. And all of those old doubts are now resurfacing as a result of the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Even if Lewinsky’s allegations were to prove untrue, it is likely to be some time before Clinton’s presidency recovers from the wounds that have been inflicted. Certainly, the U.S. news media and the Washington establishment already appear to have found the Presi-
dent guilty. “There is a general feeling that something must have happened with Monica Lewinsky,” says Michael Uhlmann, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in the U.S. capital, “just as there is wide acknowledgement that something happened with all of Clinton’s other women, from Gennifer Flowers to Paula Jones.” The question that remains is precisely what that means for Clinton’s ability to govern effectively. “What it boils down to,” argues Uhlmann, “is a reading of whether or not people are going to continue to forgive the President his many dalliances or finally say, ‘Enough.’ ”
As far as U.S. presidents go, Clinton is certainly not the only sexual adventurer to occupy the office. The list is long, including many of the country’s most distinguished leaders. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, is on it, as is Andrew Jackson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. Presidents from James Garfield through Lyndon Johnson to George Bush have been accused of at least briefly straying. Historians claim that Warren Harding favored a White House closet for his trysts with paramour Nan Britton. Johnson was said to have slipped into bed with an aide late one night with the line, “Don’t worry, honey. It’s your President.” And Grover Cleveland was actually driven from office, in part because he was alleged to have fathered an illegitimate child. “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” ran a ditty of the time. “Going to the White House Ha. Ha. Ha.”
But of all the U.S. presidents, it was John Kennedy who seems to have been most obsessed with sex. JFK’s illicit affairs, with luminaries like Marilyn Monroe and lesser lights like Judith Campbell Exner (whom he shared with mob boss Sam Giancana), have gradually emerged into the public realm over the years since his death. But it was not until Hersh published his controversial book, The Dark Side of Camelot, last year that the full extent of the late president’s appetites became known. “In private,” Hersh writes, “Kennedy was consumed with almost daily sexual liaisons and libertine partying, to a degree that shocked many members of his personal Secret Service detail. The sheer number of Kennedy’s partners, and the recklessness of his use of them, escalated throughout his presidency. The women—sometimes paid prostitutes—would be brought to Kennedy’s office or his private quarters without any prior Secret Service knowledge or clearance.” Hersh claims the president’s womanizing was widely known among White House staffers. Not least was Kennedy’s fondness for lunchtime skinny-dipping in the White House swimming pool with a pair of young female staff aides known to the Secret Service as “Fiddle and Faddle.” In his book, Hersh quotes Secret Service agent Larry Newman as saying: “It was common knowledge in the White House that when the president took lunch in the pool with Fiddle and Faddle, nobody goes in there.” The president’s brothers, Bobby and Teddy, often joined in. According to Newman, as quoted by Hersh, these aquatic frolics never occurred when the president’s wife, Jackie, was in the White House. ‘When she was there, it was no fun,” says Newman. “He just had headaches.”
Yet none of Kennedy’s private escapades ever surfaced into public view. Unlike Clinton, JFK enjoyed the protection of an all-pervasive cloak of confidentiality. “It was a different time, a different era,” says Hersh. “Even those journalists who may have had an inkling about what was going on in Kennedy’s White House didn’t write about it. In those days, the American people adored their president. He was a fig-
ure to be looked up to and admired, not torn down.” No longer. The American presidency today is a much diminished institution. And Hersh, like many others, blames that sad state of affairs on three individuals who occupied the office. “Kennedyjohnson and Nixon are really responsible for disgracing the presidency,” he maintains. “They gave us first Vietnam, then Watergate, turning Americans into a nation of cynics.”
In Kennedy’s time, the American media, too, was a far different institution than it is today. Vietnam and Watergate transformed the relationship between the press and the presidency, turning the two into adversaries. When Kennedy reigned, there was still a remnant of the chummy collegiality that had existed for many years, the kind that saw the press uniformly agree not to portray wheelchair-bound Franklin Roosevelt’s disability because it might cast doubt on the president’s ability to govern.
It was also a time when print still dominated the media, just before the full blossoming of network television, long before the advent of cable TV’s multi-channel universe. “There are simply a lot more cameras around now than there were in Jack Kennedy’s day,” says Uhlmann of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Stephen Hess, senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution, argues that it is possible to track the entire change in public attitudes about the presidency to the gradual shift in media domination away from print through network television to cable. “It’s a function of the competition for the stories and the images to fill the screens on those 50-channel TV sets,” he says. “The competition has been steadily increasing since the 1970s. And as it has increased, so has the scramble for the juicy tidbit.” w It is perhaps no accident that it was precisely % this era that witnessed the fall from grace of o Gary Hart, one of the first modern-day Ameri| can politicians to lose his political career as a di| rect result of sexual peccadillos. The former g senator from Colorado and onetime presiden| tial aspirant made the fatal mistake of attemptw ing to combat rumors of philandering by invit£ ing the media to follow his activities. The media did just that, catching Hart in an unguarded moment with actress-model Donna Rice perched upon his lap.
If the presidency and the press have changed since Kennedy’s time, so too has society at large. There is, today, much more tolerance about sexual issues than there was in the past, something amply demonstrated by the fact that Clinton’s reputation has not prevented him from twice winning election to the presidency. And that is a feat that Kennedy could never have matched in his day. “He would have been hounded right out of office if the truth were known about his private pleasures,” says Hersh. “He would never have been elected again.”
But for Clinton, the change in societal attitudes is a sword with two edges. It has also generated much more freedom for women, including the opportunity to participate much more fully in political and working life. And with that has come the strictures on sexual harassment—a concept barely acknowledged in the Kennedy era. At the root of Clinton’s troubles is a legal case that encapsulates the sexual politics of the 1990s. By her account, Paula Jones is suing because of the way she was treated after she said “no” to the kind of behavior powerful men have pursued since time immemorial. Clinton may deny that, but there is no doubt that it was Jones’s suit that set in motion the chain of events—sworn depositions that may be perjured, allegations of obstruction of justice—that now imperils his presidency. It is hard to imagine the man Clinton idolized ever having to contend with such a challenge. But Jack Kennedy lived long ago, in a different time. Bill Clinton does not have that luxury.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.