Belmont Club

Mad Men

Two articles, one from the New Republic and the other from the New York Times, examine the recollections of Mimi Alford, who was a 19-year old intern when JFK had his way with her.

Both articles focus not upon JFK’s infidelity — that is old news — but with his shallow callousness. In one revealed instance the President told Alford to give his press aid a blow job while he watched, which she dutifully did. It was an act so vile that the aide remonstrated with the Kennedy.

Afterwards, Alford says she was “deeply embarrassed,” and as she climbed out of the pool she “could hear Dave speak in as stern a tone as I ever heard him use with his boss. ‘You shouldn’t have made her do that,’ Dave said. ‘I know, I know,’ I heard the President say. Later, a chastened President Kennedy apologized to us both.” Alford believes that Kennedy showed “his darker side … when we were among men he knew. That’s when he felt a need to display his power over me.”

The NYT article focuses on another incident, the day before Kennedy flew off to his destiny in Dallas. Mimi Alford had decided to get married, and told her fiance about her relationship with JFK. By mutual agreement the couple decided to put the incidents in the past. To begin anew. Nobody knows whether JFK would have let the newly married Alford alone.

His parting words before he left for Texas were that he’d call her when he got back. “Remember, Mr. President, I’m getting married,” she chided him. “I know that,” he said. “But I’ll call you anyway.”

Feckless, unfeeling and fake. Those are the words that come to mind. The New Republic says that not even Bill Clinton could be so low; and that JFK’s behavior was so pathological that his whole record has to be revisited.

Clinton shared many vices with President Kennedy, but I can’t imagine him ever doing anything like this. I don’t usually say this about scandal stories, but Alford’s tale ought to occasion further reassessment of a president we already knew to be morally compromised.

But it’s not like JFK was an outlier. Mimi Alford says it was par for the course. Now an elderly lady, she recognizes in the TV show, “Mad Men”, a depiction of her life and times. “Ms. Alford was friendly and poised and told me she associated the White House not with Camelot but with the sexy, deceptive dystopia of television’s ‘Mad Men,’ in which comely young women service their married bosses, as glasses clink, ashtrays fill and everyone keeps mum about the misbehavior.”

Maybe things were not like that everywhere, but in Camelot’s case it apparently was. If so, then the revelations raise as many questions about Kennedy’s milieu as about JFK himself. If Kennedy was no fluke; and certainly Lyndon Johnson appears to have been no better — then national politics was a whole lot more scoundrely than the Time, Newsweek and Life ever let on.

But if the press carefully concealed the real nature of Kennedy from the public, others thought they knew him for what he was. That might explain why Nikita Khrushchev decided to try a fast one on him. Walt W. Rostow recalled JFK’s meeting with the Russian strongman in Vienna. In it, JFK appears to be Khruschev’s bitch, to put it crudely. The Soviet leader was going to do to him what he did to Mimi Alford. Humiliate him in public while telling him in advance.

what he [Kennedy] intended to achieve at the summit on Berlin at Vienna, was that the Soviets should ease their policy on Berlin and form a dignified relationship with the West … But at Vienna, Khrushchev had a very aggressive statement, which in effect was that he would give us until Christmas of 1961 to settle the Berlin thing …

What he [Kennedy] heard was a military ultimatum, to make sure he understood Khrushchev, he went off alone with Khrushchev, Khrushchev’s interpreter and his, so there was just four of them, and Khrushchev repeated this argument about he would have to start the war …

Rostow had been cleaning up after Kennedy and asked JFK what he would do. JFK’s resolution was not encouraging. Rostow recalled Kennedy’s thoughts on how to respond to the Berlin Wall, which was not yet up. It paints the portrait of a President looking for a way out from a trap that was closing in on him.

I gotten to know him very well, because I helped mop up the Bay of Pigs, that was the duty which I felt was most useful in the whole period that I was in government …

he felt that Khrushchev was a gambler and that he couldn’t afford to let him get away with that gamble … And what Khrushchev kept saying was that we surround all those troops you have in West Berlin and we could take West Berlin any time we want to and Kennedy’s reply to him was, well, that’s as may be, but we fought the Second World War and they’re there because of the Second World War, by right …

we were walking back from his house along the colonnade on one side of his rose garden, on the other side was the swimming pool, which I miss to this day. And suddenly the President said that Khrushchev cannot stand this for long, he’ll have to put up a wall or something like that and I can’t hold this alliance together, I can barely hold it together if there’s a Soviet attack to the West, but I cannot hold it together to knock down that wall and have East bleed to death by coming to the West and therefore he’ll get away with this wall and there’s nothing I can do about it. And Kennedy said that, well… about a week before the wall was put up.

A year after the Berlin Wall went up the Cuban Missile crisis brewed up. Up until now many of the classic works of analysis on the Cuban Missile crisis have described it in terms of Game Theory within the context of deterrence. The discussions are about measured response, signals and giving the Soviets a way out of a something they had gotten themselves into, etc, etc. Doubtless those elements were present and part of the calculus of resolution. But maybe they were not all of it. The Soviet perception of JFK’s personal weaknesses might have materially affected the kind of stunts Nikita was willing to try.

Eventually American national might forced the Kremlin back from Cuba. Once applied, it was a foregone conclusion. But what emerges as really significant is that Khrushchev thought Kennedy was so incompetent and morally infirm that he could use a bluff to offset the immense superiority the United States enjoyed over the Soviet Union, especially in the Caribbean.

Like Alexander at Gaugamela, Nikita was betting Darius would run. After all they decided to try it so they must have thought it was worth a shot. Having ultimately failed, what would they conclude? Khrushchev might have concluded not that he was wholly wrong but that he was almost right.

It is certainly plausible to argue that the Kremlin’s post mortem of the Cuban Missile crisis might be that they nearly grabbed the brass ring; that the American nation had legs and a torso of iron but rotten at the top. If so then they might have concluded that a long-term campaign of subversion to insert assets into the US political system would pay far greater dividends than any futile attempt to build a better navy or air force. The American military might be invincible, but Washington was eminently vincible. All it needed was a little more softening up, a little more undermining and they would have it. The way to fight the American giant was not to grapple with its adamantine arms and body, but to insinuate assets to the top.

After all they would have known what Mimi Alford knew, but which was concealed from the American pubic until relatively recently. That there were monsters at the top with no more capability or character than that of a perverted circus clown. And knowing that, they would have sought to exploit that weakness. Who knows if they have met with any success?


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