The Magazine

The President as Priapist

From the June 2, 2003 issue: Too much energy in the executive.

Jun 2, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 37 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
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ALL THE TALK about President Kennedy and his sexual exploits with a White House intern is full of leers and jeers and smutty comparisons to President Clinton. There has been little talk, though, about how reckless behavior may have affected his ability to function as chief executive.

There is some evidence that those around Kennedy treated him with less respect than is due the American president. Could it be because they perceived him as the priapist he was and were contemptuous? Turn, for example, to the marvelous narrative history published in 1991 by Michael R. Beschloss--"The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev 1960-1963"--which contains many eye-opening interviews with participants in the crisis years. Beschloss found disquieting evidence that Kennedy's womanizing troubled statesmen like British prime minister Harold Macmillan. This same behavior also may have caused some of his subordinates to doubt his competence and not only to defy his leadership, but to berate him for exercising it.

For example, on Sunday, October 28, 1962, a startling event occurred in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Only a few hours earlier, the White House had received welcome news from Moscow: Khrushchev would remove the nuclear missiles he had installed in Cuba. Khrushchev's blink meant that the U.S. airstrike against Cuba planned for the following Tuesday could now be canceled. The risk of a superpower global confrontation was over at least for a time, although, as Beschloss points out, quite a price was paid by Kennedy to Khrushchev for that victory: a pledge not to invade Cuba and unilateral removal of U.S. missile bases in Turkey without consultation of either NATO or Turkey.

A triumphant President Kennedy had called in two members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral George Anderson and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay. He thanked them, in the president's words, "for your advice and your counsel and your behavior during this very, very difficult period."

Then, according to Beschloss, there ensued a stunning display of rage by two military subordinates directly at their commander in chief:

Admiral Anderson cried out, "We have been had." General LeMay pounded the table: "It's the greatest defeat in our history, Mr. President. . . . We should invade today!" McNamara looked at Kennedy and noticed that "he was absolutely shocked. He was stuttering in reply" [italics in original].

Beschloss describes another such incident at Camp David, this time involving a presidential peer. Following the humbling 1961 Bay of Pigs misadventure, President Kennedy held a private meeting with his predecessor. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower listened to the explanations of why the invasion of Cuba had failed. He then upbraided President Kennedy in barracks language for not supplying the essential air cover and concluded with this rather contemptuous guideline: "I believe there is only one thing to do when you go into this kind of thing: It must be a success."

Beschloss was not doing a Kitty Kelley life-and-loves catalogue about Kennedy's bedroom adventurism. "Whether the President wished to sleep with women not his wife," he wrote, "does not concern the historian of his diplomacy. What is of importance is that from all the evidence we have, Kennedy made no systematic effort to ensure, by security investigation or otherwise, that all of the women with whom he was involved lacked the motive or the ability to use evidence of their relationship to blackmail him on behalf of a hostile government or organization."

But there is a reason that responsible historians will be unable to avoid discussing President Kennedy's reckless sex life. It was a significant factor in how his peers sized him up.

So far as we know, there was no blackmail or scandal during the Kennedy years. The historian quotes from the diary of Hervé Alphand, then French ambassador, that President Kennedy's "desires are difficult to satisfy without raising fears of scandal and its use by his political enemies. This might happen one day, because he does not take sufficient precautions in this Puritan country." Prime Minister Macmillan felt that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty had been badly negotiated with Chairman Khrushchev by President Kennedy because he was "weakened by constantly having all those girls, every day."