At the Pleasure of the President
Who's the Tragic Figure in a Presidential Sex Scandal?
Once the partisan rhetoric has cooled, there's a tendency to read presidential biographies as the modern equivalent of a Shakespearean tragedy: the most powerful man in the world, eternally plagued by everything he couldn't manage to do. And of the modern presidents, the most tragic of all is arguably John F. Kennedy, who never lived long enough to let us down.
Mimi Alford's Once Upon a Secret is a tell-all about the author's affair with JFK when she was a 19-year-old White House press intern. Alford clearly isn't in it for the money— you get the sense, with her Manhattan address and cozy reminiscences, that money has never been much of a concern—and the beginning of the book, which explains how her affair was finally revealed by reporters for the Daily News in 2003, is discomfiting due to the distaste Alford feels at dragging her secret out into the public.
She feels trustworthy, and the story of her affair correlates with facts and narratives mentioned in other Kennedy biographies. But Alford can't bring herself to think critically of JFK. She assures the reader—and herself?—that if she had decided not to continue having sex with the president after their first encounter, he "wouldn't have punished me" because he "was a kind and thoughtful man, beloved by all the people who worked for him. He had true grace when he dealt with people."
Fifty years later, Alford can't question Kennedy's motivations, or his feelings for her, or whether the leader of the free world guiding a breathless teenager to his vacationing wife's bedroom and silently pulling her to the bed could qualify as an abuse of power. The unspoken facts of Alford's memoir—a story so "unimportant" to the arc of Kennedy's life that it hadn't figured in any of the hundreds of JFK books published before 2003—subvert the tragic aspects of presidential biography. Maybe presidents aren't tragic figures themselves; maybe it's the tens of thousands of life-changing sacrifices that everyday people make for them that make those men so interesting.