Presidents Kennedy and Clinton: Case Studies in Society's Condonation of "Twilight" Behavior

Article excerpt

The U.S. public appears to be indifferent to the personal behavior of its political leaders. The books that lay the foundation for this article relate to the behavioral deviancy, mainly sexual, of two American presidents, John F. Kennedy and William Jefferson Clinton. They would seem an odd choice for review in a scholarly journal were it not that important issues of sociology and intellectual history are highlighted by the deviancy. We will discuss the books themselves first and will follow that discussion with an analysis of those larger issues.

All Too Human:

The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy

Edward Klein

Pocket Books, New York, 1996

Hardbound, 406 pages, $23

ISBN 0-671-50187-9

The revelations in All Too Human are of behavior so perverse that an evaluation of the book's credibility becomes a threshold issue in any discussion of it. (Oddly, and probably revealingly, the reviews in such major media outlets as Time and Newsweek place no stress on this. They mostly treat the reported behavior as consistent with known facts about the Kennedys.)1

The reasons to give it credence are persuasive:

The author, Edward Klein, is a journalist at the peak of his profession; a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he was for eleven years the editor of The New York Times Magazine.

. The book is issued by a major publisher. This presumably, though not conclusively, certifies to a higher standard of journalism than one would expect from outlets known for their "yellow journalism."

. Klein's book is the product of painstaking work, based on interviews with 325 people close to the Kennedys. He was personally acquainted with Jackie Kennedy.

Perhaps most importantly, his bias is pro-Kennedy and "liberal." This appears in various ways throughout the book, such as on page 215 when Klein attempts a rather obtuse justification for some especially callous behavior on President Kennedy's part. The book's title, All Too Human, is itself a rationalization for behavior that many millions of people would loath to see characterized as typical of "the human."

Counterpoised against all of this, of course, is the fact that "there is money to be made in" such an expose, and the additional fact that experience has shown that the prevailing American media, even at the top, deserve far less than respectful obeisance. It is necessary to ask, too, whether some of the revelations strain credulity, since they are of behavior just too personal and too outlandish to be easily believable.

These might balance out were it not for the fact that so many independent sources corroborate just the sort of behavior the book describes. Newsweek, for example, says that "as for Jack, his monomaniacal skirt-chasing has been well documented." If so, that documentation consists precisely of accounts similar to those contained in All Too Human.

If we resolve the issue of credibility roughly, at least, in favor of believing the reports, we come next to the question of what, specifically, that behavior was. And here we confront the horns of a dilemma. If we don't spell out the details, the reader won't have freshly in mind the particulars that will be needed for our later discussion of their significance. If we do recount them, we turn the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies into nothing less than an academic version of Larry Flynt's Hustler. What is fitting for Hustler, surely one of the world's sleaziest magazines, just isn't appropriate to these pages.

We have resolved that dilemma in favor of editorial predilections toward decency, which means that the description we make of the revelations contained in All Too Human will have to be at the lowest possible level of prurience. How to do that? Suffice it to say in general terms that, regarding John F. Kennedy, Klein writes about group sex, public sex, sex on the run, sex in hallowed places, sex in a house of prostitution, mob connections, venereal disease and gross sexual infidelity toward his wife, Jackie, even while she was recovering from the birth of a dead baby. …

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