Does character matter in how we view or judge past presidents? What about when we learn something about a president’s character long after they have left office?
These questions are inspired by last night’s interview on NBC and subsequent book by Mimi Alford. According to Alford, she had an affair with President John F. Kennedy when she was a White House intern. She was 19 when the affair began.
While the fact that Kennedy had an affair, and perhaps multiple, has been long-held as fact, the details that Alford provided were quite revealing. It showed a president who was entirely different from his public persona. A president who spoke of high ideals and who, seemingly, thought it was not improper to ask Alford to “take care” of a top aide or his brother.
This is not the first time that the details of a former president’s private life have been uncovered well after they left office. We’ve learned about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, even though it was reported during his administration and confirmed by a 1998 DNA test. We’ve learned that Franklin D. Roosevelt had affairs throughout their lives. In both of these cases, the revelations did not damage the esteem the public holds these men to.
That’s not the case for other politicians, especially those who have not been elected to the presidency. Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards’ political career was ended by revelations of an affair with a staffer. So were the political careers of other politicians such as Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, or, on a lesser scale, Bob Wise.
Presidents whose lives have been less than perfect have not met the same career-ending fate. President Clinton, even with his well-known infidelities, is revered as a good president. Kennedy, himself, is still revered and beloved even with his dark private life.
There is a reason for this, and that is that the reverence of the office dictates how we view the person occupying the office. The office places the occupant on a pedestal of esteem to where it dims and distorts our ability to effectively evaluate the entirety of a presidential administration, which includes the person’s character. When a president is considered great or historic, the ability to properly evaluate a president’s character is made even more difficult.
(Of course, the ability to evaluate a president is difficult when we are still hindered by the emotions that the administration produces. For instance, it will take another generation to properly evaluate Kennedy’s administration.)
In a way, we don’t want to think that a president is capable of moral failings. We want to see each president as someone of high moral character who always did things in the best interest of the country.
Certainly, we know that is not always the case. The men who have served as president are humans who have had various moral failings, just like the rest of us. Our character is part of who we are, and it is part of how we evaluate anyone’s contributions to society, especially someone who occupies the White House.
In the case of someone like Kennedy, it may take time for a character analysis to be included in the evaluations of his administration. That is because of the mystique that has surrounded the Kennedy family and the fact his life was cut short. We’ll never know if Kennedy would have made changes to his personal life for the better.
For now, we are left to wrestle with the descriptions of an affair by a former presidential mistress. Only time will tell if Alford’s story impacts how we view Kennedy as a president and as a person.